Blood and Thunder: Battles, Blades, Brotherhood
One of Canada's greatest metal bands of the past 25 years, 3 Inches of Blood, recently bid farewell over Facebook. Fortunately, the legacy they've left is a fine one.
When I first heard 3 Inches of Blood in 2003, I thought they were a bunch of hardcore kids taking the piss out of heavy metal. Like that Sum 41 video that lampooned Heavy Metal Parking Lot, it felt like the Vancouver band was doing it for a laugh at the expense of metal music and fans, rather than out of respectful fun. Still, when I head “Balls of Ice” on a local metal radio show late that year, something started to click. These guys might be on to something.
Over 12 years later, after five albums, 3 Inches of Blood announced via Facebook that they’d decided to call it a day. I won’t lie: I got a little misty-eyed. Band breakups happen all the time, and the metal scene is so saturated with sound-alikes that if one band goes, you can find a reasonable-sounding replacement immediately. Yet 3 Inches of Blood was different, at least for me personally, as I and their fans saw this band grow from a sketchy-sounding metalcore/NWOBHM hybrid, whose peripheral connection to trendy early-'00s band Hot Hot Heat didn’t do them any favors credibility-wise, into the one new band of the 2000s that evoked the music and spirit of true heavy metal better than any other. A legitimate case can even be made for calling 3 Inches of Blood one of the greatest Canadian metal bands of the last 25 years, if not all time.
The biggest criticism of the band was that they sounded too “generic”, which is strange considering heavy metal, in all its forms, is deeply rooted in tradition. Aside from the handful of visionaries and geniuses that use the form as a springboard towards innovation, metal has more in common with blues, country, and rock ‘n’ roll. No matter what subgenre, there’s a template, and you stick to it. If you want to branch out and earn the respect of listeners, you have to at least honor that template in some way.
After that initial feeling-out process that was the Battlecry Under a Wintersun album, it became more and more apparent that 3 Inches of Blood was traditional to the core. Advance and Vanquish (2004) was a night-and-day transformation, featuring a phenomenal give-and-take between the hardcore hollering of Jaime Hooper and the incredible, Udo Dirkschneider-meets-Halford screech of Cam Pipes, atop arrangements lifted from classic Iron Maiden and Angel Witch. That dynamic is on full display on “Deadly Sinners”, an instant Canadian metal classic that ranks alongside “Metal on Metal”, “Pounding Metal”, “Evil Invaders”, and “Alison Hell” as an all-timer. The song is heavy metal incarnate, a perfect distillation of everything that makes the music great, possessing a timeless quality and standing head and shoulders above the sea of dreck that was stifling the genre in the '00s.
That year the band’s two guitarists were replaced by Shane Clark and Justin Hagberg, two musicians with deeper ties to metal and stronger chops than Sunny Dhak and Bobby Froese, and the course was set. Recorded with Slipknot’s Joey Jordison, 2007’s Fire Up the Blades was a rampaging beast of a record, the revamped lineup paying off in spades, the intensity increased tenfold. “Night Marauders”, “The Goatriders Horde”, and “Trial of Champions” faithfully followed the lead of “Deadly Sinners", to rousing effect, the band becoming a force in a live setting. The better 3 Inches of Blood got, though, the more apparent that this was quickly becoming Cam Pipes’ show, his astonishing snarl greatly overshadowing Hooper’s monotone screams.
Unfortunately for Hooper, his relentless -- and ultimately foolish -- approach to screaming, from the throat rather from the diaphragm, paid such a toll that he could no longer do so without causing physical pain. Although it was a sad end for Hooper, it was a blessing in disguise for the rest of the band, who now had a bona fide frontman in Pipes, and they could now take that classic heavy metal approach and run like hell with it. Produced by Jack Endino, 2009’s Here Waits Thy Doom was even more traditional in its warmer tone and its ‘70s metal influence, while the succinctly titled Long Live Heavy Metal sharpened the band’s attack, the sound approaching the steely intensity of Judas Priest.
During that time, I saw 3 Inches of Blood too many times to count, the band hilariously going through as many bassists as Spinal Tap had drummers, and not once did I leave a show without a big smile on my face. Too many memories, too, from the time when a guy standing on a chair behind me headbanged so thoroughly he nailed the top of my skull with a ferocious accidental headbutt, to seeing the band play an exultant three in the morning set on the pool deck of the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise in front of a big gathering of gleefully sloshed metalheads. It’s enough to compel me to try to figure out a way to make it to Vancouver this November, when the band will be playing their big farewell show. In the end, what’s left of a band’s legacy is the body of work they leave behind, and 3 Inches of Blood should be awfully proud of what they’ve done. If your music helps make someone’s life a little more endurable, a little more fun, you’ve succeeded. Take my word for it: guys, you’ve succeeded plenty.
Armored Saint, Win Hands Down (Metal Blade)
Having sprung from the same Los Angeles underground scene that spawned Metallica and Slayer, Armored Saint was always overshadowed by their peers, and are probably best known for being the band John Bush was in before he was hired to sing for Anthrax. This is a hugely underrated band with a handful of very good albums and one minor classic (1990’s Symbol of Salvation), and still they carry on to this day. La Raza (2010), their first album in a decade, was a wonderful return to form, the band embracing their Latino roots -- whether familial or environmental -- while cranking out the classic melodic heavy metal they were always so good at. Album number seven isn’t quite as special as the previous record is, but it still maintains that above-average quality the band has always exhibited. Touches of prog (bassist Joey Vera is a longtime member of Fates Warning) and blues accentuate the music nicely (“Dive” is a tremendous ballad), but this album is at its best when rocking at its fullest, as on “Win Hands Down”, “Muscle Memory”, and the fun “Up Yours”. (Spotify.)
Cloud Rat, Qliphoth (Halo of Flies)
The focus of grindcore is constantly on attack, and for good reason. That’s what the music is all about: bursts of the most intense, angriest, visceral guitar-based music possible. There’s little if any time in a short track for dynamics, and more often than not that tactic is used in album sequencing, where the overall ebb and flow is felt in the complete album experience rather than within an individual track. This makes the latest album by Cloud rat so extraordinary; not only is this some first-rate grind, but this band actually makes the effort to tone things down here and there, often within a single song. Consequently, what you get is pure insanity reminiscent of geniuses Daughters, which then morphs into something a lot more sedate and contemplative, best exemplified by “Udder Dust” and “Hermit Interstice”. This is an extraordinary album, the strongest grind record since Gridlink’s Longhena last year. (Bandcamp.)
Clouds Collide, All Things Shining (self-released)
Pennsylvania singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Chris Pandolfo has been slowly building his Clouds Collide project from a humble little idea to something truly special. Using the theme of the four seasons as a starting point, 2013’s Until the Wind Stops Blowing dwelled on the winter months, his compositions dealing with the sense of deep loss and grief in the wake of losing his mother, a devastating blend of sadness and catharsis palpable in the music, which mined the same territory as early Alcest. With All Things Shining, the prevailing mood is spring: although there are the odd clouds and dreariness that spring brings, there’s also a sense of rebirth and renewed optimism on this record, songs gracefully moving back and forth between searing black metal and more contemplative moments similar to Ride and latter-day Anathema. To compare it to the similarly pastel metal of Deafheaven is actually a disservice; while Deafheaven is built around guitar wizardry, the simpler Clouds Collide is a more complete package, a better balance of melody and dissonance, recalling the budding mastery of Alcest’s Le Secret. Led by such stellar moments as “Hope and Bliss”, “Blossom”, and “Perihelion”, it’s an uplifting work, at times staggeringly so. While the album’s influences can be pinpointed, more crucially you can hear that maturity, Pandolfo’s own musical identity taking shape. It’s something special, and is easily one of the best metal albums of 2015 so far. (Bandcamp.)
Goatsnake, Black Age Blues (Southern Lord)
Sometimes it’s best to let sleeping, erm, snakes lie. Goatsnake’s 2000 album is a minor stoner/doom classic, on which Greg Anderson (he of Sunn O))) notoriety) and three mates channeled heavy blues in a way that wouldn’t be topped until the rise of Witch Mountain a decade later. Now, 15 years later, the band is back together playing fairly high profile reunion shows, and more tantalizing, have new music to flog as well. Trouble is, although Black Age Blues sticks to the exact same template as the last record -- even getting back together with Nick Raskulinecz, who’s become a popular mainstream producer -- the magic is gone. Save for a nifty crunching groove on “Elevated Man”, totally gone. Anderson’s riffs lack inspiration, the sound strips the band of any power, and Pete Stahl’s singing is far too weak for music this supposedly heavy, too often slipping into Josh Homme-style affectations. Whereas every song on Flower of Disease sounded almost magical, these new tracks are lifeless, and at times embarrassing. What a letdown. (Bandcamp.)
Helloween, My God-Given Right (Nuclear Blast)
The German power metal innovators have been on a slow but steady creative decline in the quarter century since founding member Kai Hansen left the band. Strangely enough, though, 2013’s Straight Out of Hell was a tentative return to semi-respectability, and Helloween’s latest, their 15th overall, actually builds on that positive momentum with a shockingly enjoyable album. It’s not without its cringe-inducing moments of cornball melodies, atrocious lyrics, and muppet-like vocals by Andi Deris -- lead-off track “Heroes” is particularly sketchy -- but the record quickly rights itself with a string of such energetic, enjoyable tunes as “Battle’s Won”, “Stay Crazy”, and “Lost in America”. Power metal is only as good as its hooks, but give these old dogs credit, there are catchy melodies aplenty here. While an hour is far too long for an album this silly, the band does an admirable job making it as consistent a listen as possible. I never thought I’d ever say this again, but My God-Given Right is a good album. At times, damn good. (Spotify.)
Leprous, The Congregation (Inside Out)
After a couple albums that showed promise, it sounds as if the young Norwegians are now more preoccupied with becoming the most boring band in heavy metal. The musicianship on this new record is sterling as usual, and the band is indeed smart enough to not allow that technical ability overwhelm the songs. Although there’s a moment early on where progress is made (the excellent “Rewind”), where The Congregation fails is that the bulk of the melodies written fail to command the attention of anyone listening. Instead those attempts at hooks sleepwalk along like a limp Dredg imitation, Einar Solberg’s Thom Yorke-aping falsetto only adding to the music’s drowsiness. This band was, and still is to a degree, on the right track, but like so many metal bands today, they can’t find that right musical alchemy where all factors coalesce into one brilliant whole. (Spotify.)
Maruta, Remain Dystopian (Relapse)
Leaning more towards the atonal, death metal side of grindcore than, say, the crustier thrashy side, the third full-length by the Floridians might not break new ground the way Discordance Axis and Gridlink, but it churns out its tunes at an alarmingly intense pace. Guitarists Eduardo Borja and Mauro Cordoba do a great job crafting searing riffs, always mindful enough to sneakily toss in some dynamic touches (always a challenging in grindcore), while Danny Morris turns in a veritable death/grind drumming clinic, his beats and fills dizzying, fluid, and spectacularly on point. While Cloud Rat has come through with the week’s superior grind album, this one is not far behind, and is a must-hear for fans of the genre. (Spotify.)
Paradise Lost, The Plague Within (Century Media)
While the 2012 album Tragic Idol was lauded by many, I found it to be a tepid affair, one that pushed all the requisite buttons for modern-era Paradise Lost fans, but lacked inspiration and ambition. Since then, though, singer Nick Holmes became the new frontman for death metal supergroup Bloodbath, while Greg Mackintosh indulged his crust-metal side with Vallenfyre. In so doing, whether it was intentional or just an instinctive byproduct, that extremity has worked its way into Paradise Lost’s 14th album, which turns out to be their finest in a long time. The songwriting’s been given a swift kick in the pants, ranging from the usual melancholia (“No Hope in Sight”), to rampaging heavy metal (“Punishment Through Time”), to astounding returns to the band’s classic doom sound (“Beneath Broken Earth”). Producer Jaime Gomez Arellano, as he always does, wraps it all up in a luxuriant, natural tone, making such strong songs even more pleasing to the ear. For a band that has underachieved for so long, it’s a pleasure to see them back in peak form. (Spotify.)
Pyrrhon, Growth Without End (Handshake)
A year after startling the hell out of me with the utterly psychotic second album The Mother of Virtues, the Brooklyn band has quickly hammered out an EP that builds on that progressive death metal sound. Comprised of five tracks that blend classic death/grind, walls of dissonance, sneaky little touches of AmRep noise rock, and some delightfully twisted lyrics spewed so viscerally you can envision the veins popping out of Doug Moore’s head, this terrific, essential release only reasserts Pyrrhon’s position as one of the more exciting extreme metal bands in North America right now. (Spotify.)
Much was made this past week about Spotify’s recent statistical findings that metal fans were the most loyal of all Spotify users. It incited the usual posts and editorials, ranging from mild surprise from the mainstream media, to oddly defensive “well of course we’re the most loyal” editorials from the metal side of the fence. It was all very cute and predictable from everyone involved, but nobody bothered to notice the most significant sign from the stats: metal fans, the stodgiest music listeners this side of mainstream country, have finally made the move to digital. Up until now metal fans craved a tangible product by the artists they followed, they wanted a physical monument to their own loyalty. We all have our favorite band’s discographies neatly displayed on shelves, and are at time stubborn completists and collectors when it comes to that. iTunes never clicked with the metal crowd because, since 1999, a huge number of metal fans downloaded illegally with the intent to sample, to determine whether or not a new album was worthy of buying a CD or vinyl copy of. That in turn was reflected in the numbers, as first-week sales of metal albums would explode, propelling many obscure (by mainstream standards) artists into the top 40 during a time when sales of pop albums steadily declined.
Not only does streaming make it significantly easier to sample before you buy, if that’s your intention, but it could also signal a real change in the way metal fans listen to their music. Metal has always been a devoutly traditional, album-oriented genre, and as more metal fans gravitate towards streaming services like Spotify, more will adopt a pick-and-choose mindset, singling out the individual tracks they want to hear, essentially catching up with what pop music has had to deal with in the last decade. It’s no secret metal has plateaued in the last 15 years; if fewer classic albums are coming out, why waste your time with that when it’s easier to seek out great individual tracks? Fan-curated playlists, for example, might have more appeal to a metal fan who demands excellence but rarely comes across truly exemplary new albums. It will be very, very interesting to see how this increased popularity of heavy metal on Spotify is reflected on actual album sales in the future. Metal listeners just might become a lot more selective regarding which bands they’re loyal to than ever before.
Swedish blasphemers Ghost will be releasing their third album Meliora on August 21, and in advance of that they’ve put out the first single “Cirice”. If the six-minute track is any indication, the album just might live up to its title, which is Latin for “better”. Not that 2012’s Infestissumam was a disappointment -- anything but. However, some folks had a problem with its graceful, nocturnal feel, missing the urgency of the outstanding 2010 debut Opus Anonymous. “Cirice” is indeed decidedly heavier, starting with its Hanneman-esque intro and segueing into its crunching, doomy main riff. Still, though, the almighty hook remains the primary focus this band of hooded, masked ghouls -- sorry, extreme metalers -- and that contrast between dulcet melodies and foreboding heavy metal arrangements remains Ghost’s strong suit. With heavy, poppy, gritty, high-gloss sheen, "Cirice" finds Ghost creating a sound all their own in a short span of time. This track is a resounding success.
Stream and download “Cirice” here.
Horns Down: Phil Labonte, metal fests that put “Gourmet Man Food” alongside the bands, Slayer’s seven-pound Repentless.
Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy.
Follow Blood & Thunder’s rolling 2015 metal tracks playlist on Spotify.