Blood and Thunder: Entering the Echo Chamber
In an age when writers regularly churn out "content" at dizzying speeds, truly great music makes a writer slow down and take time to reflect.
For a variety of reasons, the need for a feature piece among them, I was going to review the new Lamb of God album this week. Never mind the fact that it doesn’t come out for another two months, or that the band’s American PR is only just starting to get the hype machine rolling; these days, I couldn’t care less about publishing a review before such absurd press announcements as an “album artwork unveiling” and “track listing unleashing”. Besides, no band should ever complain about getting press, especially if the review is positive, so why not hammer out a fun piece about a rare 2015 album that’s captured my attention?
Yeah, I like the new record, VII: Sturm Und Drang. Quite a lot, actually. Given the freedom I have with this weekly column, the urge to sit down and slap together a thousand words about why I enjoy VII: Sturm Und Drang so much is near impossible to resist. It’s the same for any music fan: when you hear great new music, you have to gush, you need to run out and tell people about it. Yet at the same time, as a writer there’s also something stupid, trite, and narcissistic lurking underneath that desire, too: the fleeting satisfaction of being first.
There’s a lot wrong with metal criticism these days, which I hope to get into later this summer, but one of the most absurd notions is how “instant reporting”, this whole silly game of “firsties”, somehow makes a writer or a publication think they have a leg up on the competition. If anything, metal fans are an obsessive bunch, and you know they’ll flock to any website that publishes an early review of a new release by their favourite band.
One surreal thing that happened to me was that an early review of Iron Maiden’s The Final Frontier published in July 2010 for a French magazine was translated, pored over, and dissected by Maiden fans worldwide for weeks. People obsessively questioned my use of a particular adjective and just how it could indicate what the music sounds like. That French review was never supposed to be published that early (darn magazine for dishonoring the embargo), but there was a short period of smug satisfaction from the whole thing. Now, the review is forgotten by all. I only just remembered that French piece minutes before writing this; I hadn’t thought of it in five years.
Writing at MSN’s metal blog Headbang, I never hesitated to whip together a quick early review in an effort to attract readers, anything to make my voice heard among the repetitive din of the metal hive mind. One cute gimmick Stereogum used to do was post a “Premature Evaluation” review within hours of a hotly anticipated album leaking on Oink or whatever invite-only torrent site was in vogue at the time. But in the long run, what’s the benefit of a slapdash write-up posted immediately? Everyone’s sloppy, hastily written, poorly edited writing will all eventually be culled together on a press release, Wikipedia page, or a quote at Metacritic -- which writers sometimes secretly think is a feather in the cap, even though no one actually cares about it. Instant reporting of breaking news is necessary; instant music criticism can wait, promo cycles be damned.
That’s how it is, though; the content is more important than the writing. Write quickly, post immediately, the piece is consumed -- sites hope it’ll be devoured, even though more often than not it'll be nibbled -- social media “share” statistics will be noted, and readers will move on to the next thing, having given you 30 seconds of their time. It all seems such a waste, especially when you consider that nothing on the internet can ever be permanent. Nothing.
When MSN laid off its entire staff of music writers, which included veterans Robert Christgau and Maura Johnston, the best pop music writers in the business, I personally lost thousands upon thousands of words that were online. I archived my work at home, thankfully, but that writing will never be seen by that wide an audience again. Who knows how long PopMatters will last? Forever, I quixotically hope, but let’s be realistic.
Still privy to more advance music than any human being could possibly handle, but slowly distancing myself from the soul-crushing repetition of album promotion cycles, I’ve since learned to take a step back, breathe, and slow the hell down. In my travels related to this crazy career as a music writer, I’ve seen writers churning out reviews and recaps during a band’s lavish press event in Sweden because their deadline was midnight that night. I've seen writers wasting time and money posting daily recaps and photos from a painfully slow and exorbitantly expensive cruise ship internet connection. I've seen writers staying up all night posting several thousand words of festival recaps before going back to the grind on no sleep, and even missing half of a music fest because they’re busy posting liveblogs from a laptop in the press tent -- wait, that last one was yours truly. The speed at which you post your music coverage matters much more than the quality of the writing, and the faster everyone writes, the quicker copy flies in, the less attentive an editor becomes, and the worse it all gets.
I was in Oslo in early 2008 covering the By:Larm festival for PopMatters, doing what I could to provide whatever instant reportage I could, posting from a hotel computer at two in the morning. It was admittedly great fun, immersing myself in fantastic music and writing my thoughts every night. I remember asking PopMatters Editor and Publisher Sarah Zupko whether she wanted detailed coverage of the daytime conferences and not just the performances at night. Her advice was wonderful: “You’re not in Norway every day. Go out and enjoy the city.” I did just that, absorbing that beautiful city in the afternoons for four days. I got some perspective, became more aware of my extraordinary environment, and left the city and festival with an even more vivid picture in my mind than I would have had I buried myself in writing and posting as fast as possible, which in turn was reflected in my post-festival piece.
When you’re a freelance writer, you get so sucked into that relentless pace, churning out copy left and right. It was something I personally thrived on for many years, but in the end all that “workahol” (to quote Homer Simpson) takes its toll, not only on your craft but also your mental and physical health as well. The gratification of being the first person to break a band or tell folks about a potential album of the year candidate doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as how well you write about it, what’s left for future curious readers to read after a quick Google search.
So instead of going on and on euphorically about how the new Lamb of God record is the follow-up to Ashes from the Wake we’ve been waiting a full decade for, I’ll let this thing stew a bit, and offer some more fully-formed thoughts in a couple months. Everyone and their dog will be posting opinions on it by then, but I hope you’ll drop by to read mine. And just as I write this, the new High on Fire album has graced my inbox. I can’t wait to tell you about that one, either. Give me three weeks; I think I can wait that long.
Albums Out This Week
Arcturus, Arcturian (Prophecy)
Featuring former members of Ulver, Dimmu Borgir, and Mortem -- including drummer Helhammer and singer ICS Vortex -- the first album in ten years by the Norwegian supergroup is as progressive and audacious as you’d expect from them. However, the longer it goes in, the busier it all starts to sound. No matter how catchy the riffs, they’re all buried in arrangements that sound so overstuffed you have to put an inordinate amount of effort into hearing it all. Even worse, the vocal melodies, no matter how well performed by ICS Vortex, go absolutely nowhere. And when will metal bands learn that ripping off trip hop and big beat from 1995 isn’t “experimental” and “futuristic” at all? (Listen on Spotify.)
Exxiles, Oblivion (Nightmare)
The list of musicians contributing to this “multinational band” helmed by Mauricio Bustamente is the stuff of power metal fans’ wet dreams: members of Symphony X, Savatage, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Circle II Circle, Communic, Circus Maximus, Stream of Passion, Ayreon, and many more. Strangely enough, having all those cooks in the kitchen doesn’t spoil the broth at all. Bustamente and company have put together a remarkably focused prog/power album that pushes all the requisite buttons -- loads of fleet-fingered guitars and melodramatic vocals -- but doesn’t overdo things. Fans of all the aforementioned bands will want to give this impressive little album a shot. (Sample and purchase on iTunes.)
Kamchatka, Long Road Made Of Gold (Despotz)
Led by guitarist and singer Thomas Andersson and featuring Per Wiberg (Spiritual Beggars, ex-Opeth) on bass, this band, like Spiritual Beggars, is stubbornly stuck in the early-'70s, preoccupied with the blues-driven heavy rock of Deep Purple, Grand Funk, and Cactus. And as familiar as it all sounds -- man, do the Swedes ever seem to love this stuff -- Andersson and his mates do a very good job on their fourth album, tracks like “Take Me Back Home” and “Made of Gold” bringing just enough original ideas to the form to make you forget just how patently unoriginal and oversaturated this style of music is these days. (Listen on Spotify.)
Mamaleek, Via Dolorosa (The Flenser)
Trust The Flenser to put out the most interesting album of the week. The label loves to unearth music that challenges and confounds as much as it enthralls, and the latest release by this peculiar San Francisco duo is definitely that. Although rooted in extreme metal -- you can hear the black metal influence throughout the record -- its breadth is much broader. Elements of jazz and progressive rock creep into the mix, and underneath all the nihilism is a sense of playfulness that doesn’t feel far removed from Mr. Bungle’s best work. At times the black metal vocal histrionics get very, very silly, but thankfully the arrangements are so weird and fun that they more than make up for it. And in some cases, like on the brooding and thudding final track, it works rather well. (Listen on Spotify.)
Swans, Filth (Young God)
Swans weren’t considered metal at all 30 years ago, but their influence on a generation of extreme metal bands since is so undeniable that when you go back and listen to their early work, you can hear that modern sound in the music. But Swans weren’t so much prescient as completely one of a kind, a weird, grating combination of Throbbing Gristle and Killing Joke, yet nothing at all like those bands either. The 1983 debut album Filth is nothing like the music the band would go on to make: abrasive, minimalist, and primal, with frontman Michael Gira chanting weird poetry like a shaman atop thudding drums and defiantly dissonant guitars. It’s not the definitive Swans record - Children of God will always be that to me -- but Filth remains a marvel nevertheless, and it has been gloriously reissued, appended with a bevy of bonus tracks, including the band’s first EP from 1982, studio out-takes, and live recordings, including an astonishing version of “Raping a Slave” from 1984. Metal, post-punk, college rock, no wave, whatever you call it, this is essential listening. (Listen on Spotify.)
Turbowolf, Two Hands (Spinefarm)
The second album by the energetic British band is pure lunacy, a strange amalgamation of metal, hard rock, psychedelic, punk, stoner, and electronic. Purist fans of each genre might bristle, but there’s something here for everyone, and you can easily envisioning these guys playing Warped Tour, Roadburn, Mayhem Fest, and Coachella, fitting in at each one. These tracks can groove and swing with the authority and force of the mightiest metal band, but at the same time there’s always enough of a pop sensibility in these tunes (“Good Hand” and “Rabbits Foot”, for instance) to attract a broader audience than any niche crowd. It’s like Royal Blood, if Royal Blood had twice as many members and knew how to write good songs. (Listen on Spotify.)
We Butter the Bread With Butter, Wieder Geil! (AFM)
The best thing I can say about the band with the dumbest name this side of Goat Semen is at the very least their brand of metalcore is catchy. Accentuated by elements of trance music and industrial, musically it’s noisy paint-by-numbers kiddiecore, but these guys are smart enough to inject these clattering tunes with enough hooks to actually hold your attention for a little while. For music this obnoxious, it’s the least they can do for those of us who have to suffer through it. (Listen on Spotify.)
Head Above Ground
Huge congrats to Faith No More, whose new album Sol Invictus sold 31,000 copies this past week landing it at an awfully impressive number six. It’s outstanding to see people gravitating to such a good record.
Nearly as notable, though on a smaller scale, is just how well Veil of Maya has done lately, whose fifth album Matriarch sold 9,400 copies two weeks ago, besting the first-week numbers of 2012’s Eclipse. It’s an album I can’t get fully behind, but the Chicago band is building some very strong momentum, and any time you can outsell your previous album in this day and age is no small feat. And people still jones for Whitesnake apparently, as David Coverversion’s collection of, erm, cover versions from his time with Deep Purple from 1973 to 1976, sold a respectable-for-what-it-is 6,900 in America this week, landing it at 84. Even crazier: The Purple Album, which is a mildly enjoyable record but hardly essential, cracked the top 20 in the UK, Sweden, Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, and Japan, where it debuted at number eight.
And lastly: really, Slayer? Repentless?! The most important new album you’ve put out in 14 years, and that’s the best you can do for a title? As fellow writer Kyle Harcott quipped, it’s more like Repointless.
Track of the Week
I’ve been a great admirer of Canadian band Unleash the Archers for years, and after a lengthy wait for a follow-up to 2011’s very good Demons of the Astrowaste, the Victoria, British Columbia band has not only come through, but they now have Napalm Records behind them as well. The first track to be released to the public is the rampaging “Tonight We Ride”, a song that plays to all the band’s strengths: tight, aggressive power/speed metal built around the formidable singing voice of Brittney Slayes. If you’re into Holy Grail, Three Inches of Blood, and Thundersteel-era Riot, this will scratch that itch nicely. New album Time Stands Still will be out 26 June.
Blabbermouth Headline of the Week
Horns Up: Dee Snider’s podcast, Bill Ward, Rush superfan King Diamond.
Horns Down: Rocklahoma, Kerry King’s bad pun disease, any PR campaign that involves “unveiling” or “unleashing”.
Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy.
Follow Blood & Thunder’s rolling 2015 metal tracks playlist on Spotify.