Blood and Thunder: Some Talk, No Action
While making tremendous progress in some areas, heavy metal’s insularity still shows in much of its reportage.
Now six years removed from the release of the landmark Gin, one of the most important metal albums of the 2000s, anticipation had been building as Cobalt began preparing to write and record the long-awaited follow-up. However, late 2014 found the band, comprised of multi-instrumentalist Erik Wunder and vocalist Phil McSorley, embroiled in controversy after McSorley repeatedly used homophobic and misogynistic language in a Facebook comment thread. Wunder, to his credit, acted quickly, and shortly thereafter announced that McSorley was no longer a part of Cobalt, and that recording of the new album would continue with a vocalist to be named later.
That moment was a testament to how strong the metal scene has become with regards to such issues as homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny. It has made enormous strides in those areas, helping make the genre and the culture more inclusive, with more and more artists speaking out, more publications covering such issues. It’s a point of great pride that heavy metal is becoming a place where women can have a clearly defined place without objectification, where LGTBQ individuals can feel welcome and be prominent spokespersons within the genre. When McSorley left Cobalt, there was a lot of self-congratulatory sentiment among metal fans and writers: “See how open-minded we are? See how we won't put up with such garbage?” It was partly warranted; I myself felt the same. Still, though, there was a bit of smugness to it all.
After some encouraging, tantalizingly vague updates from the studio, two weeks ago it was announced that Charlie Fell, formerly of Chicago band Lord Mantis, had officially joined Cobalt, and writers and readers on the internet flipped their collective wigs. Part of Cobalt’s great appeal has always been the unique dynamic within the duo: the supremely talented musician/songwriter and the tortured, mercurial vocalist. If there's one person in American underground metal best suited to step into that role, it’s Fell, whose maniacal screams and crazed, unhinged gutter poetry played a big part in making Lord Mantis such an enthralling band. The praise within the metal scene about the announcement has been universal, but personally, the first thought that ran through my head upon reading those reactions was, what hypocrites.
Fell and Lord Mantis were masters of provocation – it was part of the reason why I loved their music so much – but on last year’s album Death Mask Fell crossed that line after so deftly walking that razor-thin edge for so long. “A waste since young was raped in the arms of mother,” he wrote in the song “Body Choke”. “Wasted forever, bent to the whip of speed priest, I am the raping Ni**er.” Some might argue that it takes on a different metaphorical meaning in context, but when such a line perpetuates a hateful stereotype of a black person as a raping brute, it is damaging to the African-American community, and wholly unacceptable, without exception.
When it comes to addressing issues of racism within heavy metal, a lot of lip service is paid but nowhere near enough action is taken, as nobody wants to upset the apple cart within the cozy little hive mind. After being called out for their apparent Nazi affiliation black metal band Inquisition, namely frontman Dagon – composer of the songs “Crush the Jewish Prophet” and “14 Showerheads, 1 Gas Tight Door” – offered up a long-winded, hilariously vague explanation to Decibel magazine that ranks as one of the most moronic “non-responses” you'll ever see. In a flattering interview for Stereogum, death metal band Bölzer’s lame, unacceptable excuse for their swastika tattoos was that they’re not swastikas, but rather “sun wheels”. And nobody, save for the excellent website Last Rites, made the effort to take Fell and Lord Mantis to task for that hateful, racist lyric.
Within months all those controversies fizzled. The requisite tut, tuts were made, but before long everyone carried on their merry way. Bölzer put out a new record to great critical acclaim. Popular metal blog Metal Injection passive-aggressively titled a post, “So Inquisition Aren't Nazis? I Don't Know. Who Cares?” A year later Inquisition was booked by Slipknot to appear at their gigantic Knotfest festival this summer. And people have been falling over themselves admiring Cobalt for hiring Fell. Just this week, MetalSucks editor Anso DF justifiably questioned why Slipknot would book Inquisition at their festival, but days before had streamed Lord Mantis’s “Body Choke” in a post full of effusive praise regarding the Cobalt/Fell move. Who cares about a consistent editorial stance when clicks are all that matter?
Much of the media coverage of heavy metal in North America is based on who knows whom, who is close friends with whom, who has worked for which band. When it comes to journalistic integrity, the conflicts of interest in this scene are staggering. Relationships, friendships get in the way of actual reportage. A band that plays an unpopular style of music among writers is worthy of a hatchet job, but a band that’s well-liked among scenesters is treated with kid gloves. As a result readers are left with a continual, collective circle jerk, a mutual appreciation society where no one will dare make the wrong move for fear of being shut out of the hive. After all, getting on guest lists at shows in Brooklyn can save an impoverished writer plenty of cash, not to mention provide an ego boost at the door.
The metal scene is a community at times, it's true, and when you work with like-minded people, friendships will be made. I know Erik Wunder on a professional level where we’ve had some good conversations, and I’m a great admirer of his art. I’ve chatted at great length privately with Fell about his own personal reasons for using such an ugly, racist line like he did in “Body Choke”, and he was forthright. As much as I like these guys, however, in no way can I or any other writer allow that to cloud our objectivity or influence how we cover a musician’s music. Racism in heavy metal, like homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny, must be addressed mercilessly, no matter what excuse given by the artist, no matter how “nice” or “cool” the artist is.
Until Inquisition convince people otherwise, they are racists. If Bölzer aren’t racists, they're certainly morons of the lowest order.
And seriously, Cobalt. What the hell?
Albums Out This Week
Because Blood and Thunder was off last week during PopMatters' publishing break, and because the music world is transitioning to a global release date starting this Friday, 10 July, there are three separate release dates to go through this week. I've limited myself to ten noteworthy albums
Ash Of Cedars, Ash Of Cedars (Handshake, Inc.): Like Rwake, the Arkansas band brings a uniquely Southern perspective on black metal, where orthodox arrangements and characteristics meld with rustic, ragged guitar tones. It’s takes talent to evoke the countryside in a sound as extreme as underground black metal, and Ash of Cedars do so in effortless fashion on this new six-track EP. (Bandcamp)
August Burns Red, Found In Far Away Places (Fearless): Say what you will about metalcore - I will say that it remains a blight on the heavy metal landscape – August Burns Red does it better than the great majority of kiddie-pandering bands out there. What you hear from these Pennsylvanians on their seventh album is complete command of their craft. They stand out because while they adhere to the standard formula (ripping off At the Gates, one-chord breakdowns) they’re creative enough to come up with clever melodies and some startlingly creative moments that actually lean towards progressive metal, best exemplified by “Martyr”. By the time you get through such tracks as “Identity” (that surf rock interlude!), Separating the Seas” (cabaret!), and “The Wake”, you might find yourself begrudgingly admitting that these guys are very good at what they do. You likely won’t hear a better metalcore record all year. (Spotify)
Author & Punisher, Melk En Honing (Housecore): There’s no denying Tristan Shone’s genius. After all, the artist and mechanical engineer created some of the most original-sounding music of the last decade using only devices that he himself invented. The result was clattering, pounding, intense and cathartic, a highly creative take on industrial metal that owed a lot to Godflesh and early Ministry but was truly in a world of its own. As artists, grow, though, their art evolves too, and it’s clear that the more Shone masters his approach, the more inclined he is to embrace more conventional sounds and styles in an effort to bridge extremity and accessibility. This third album tries doggedly to bring structure and formula to the music, with Shone even adopting a singing voice from time to time, but when you hear the ballad “Future Man”, you can’t help but wonder if he’s strayed a little too far towards the edge. This music isn’t supposed to feel safe, and the more this album goes on, the less risk there seems to be, which is a shame. (Spotify)
Between The Buried And Me, Coma Ecliptic (Metal Blade): When you’re an extremely talented, endlessly creative progressive rock band, there will come a time when you, for lack of a better term, disappear up your own ass. It’s happened to the best of them: Pink Floyd, Yes, Can, King Crimson, Rush. Popularity, creative freedom, and ambition can bring out the worst in any artist as well as the very best, and it’s easy to understand how musicians in such a self-indulgent genre can lose their way if not careful. After a pair of landmark albums, 2005’s Alaska and 2007’s Colors, Between the Buried and Me slipped into a rabbit hole of overlong arrangements, kitchen sink-style songwriting, and worst of all, a sense of complacency amidst all the technicality. From The Great Misdirect through the two Parallax releases, it felt as if the band had forgotten just what it was that made them so special. For a progressive metal band, there was no progression happening anymore.
That’s all changed with this new seventh album, which shows some wonderful growth. The band has not completely shed its metalcore roots, but they’ve branched farther out into prog rock territory, the Yes and Genesis influences becoming more and more prominent. The more melodic the band is, the more they rein things in and let those melodies breathe and evolve, the better things get, and there are plenty of moments that show these guys are starting to get the hang of it. Of course this very long album does meander, songs often venturing well beyond seven or eight minutes, but this time around there is a much stronger sense of control, of discipline. It’s starting to click that simpler is better, even in prog, and this album, which a lot of people have been waiting nearly a decade for, is that next crucial step in Between the Buried and Me’s fascinating evolution.
Black Feast, Larenuf Jubileum (Nuclear War Now!): Black metal hilarity from Finland, where the adequately filthy tone is drowned out by an expectorating vocalist who sounds like a retching dog. What’s the Finnish word for “charlatan”? (Bandcamp)
Cradle of Filth, Hammer Of The Witches (Nuclear Blast): Ever since their marvelous run over the course of their first six albums, cradle of Filth’s music has been inconsistent at best, many moments of complacently intermittently interrupted by fleeting moments of inspiration. Their 11th album starts off in similarly unconvincing fashion, but in a very pleasant surprise, gradually starts to right itself the longer it goes on. The riffs get stronger and catchier, dynamics are utilized to good effect, everything creating a delightfully garish backdrop for flamboyant screecher Dani Filth to spit out his devilishly funny wordplay. It all comes together best on the garish “Blackest Magick in Practice”, the best Cradle of Filth song to come along in many years. Cutting out two or three tracks would have done this record a great favor, but as it stands this is a respectable return to form by a chronically underachieving band. (iTunes)
Goblin Rebirth, Goblin Rebirth (Relapse): Goblin has had so many members, so many editions, that it practically hurts trying to describe the confusion of it all. Just look at this. It’s insane. To simplify, though, guitarist Massimo Morante, bassist Fabio Pignatelli, and drummer Agostino Marangolo are carrying on as Goblin, keyboard genius Claudio Simonetti has Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin, while Pignatelli and Marangolo also has a band called Goblin Rebirth, who have just released their first album. Got all that? Let’s set all that aside for a minute and focus on the music on Goblin Rebirth, which upon hearing it, you have to admit is a rather credible tribute to the style and legacy of this great Italian progressive rock band. When you listen to Goblin you want dark, groovy, cinematic prog, best epitomized by the scores for such horror and giallo films as Suspiria, Dawn of the Dead, and Phenomena, and that’s exactly what Goblin rebirth gives you. Granted, it’s hard to equal the creativity and innovation that Simonetti brought to the original Goblin, but tracks like “Evil in the Machine” and “Forest” do a very good job staying true to what makes Goblin so great. (Spotify)
Jungle Rot, Order Shall Prevail (Victory): Do Jungle Rot stick out from any other sound-alike, “blue collar” death metal at all? It’s tempting to say, “not at all,” because of how rigid the Wisconsin band has been over the course of eight albums. But they have one intangible quality that few contemporary death metal bands have: a knack for catchy songs. It’s all so simple in that Bolt Thrower, Immolation kind of way, but it’s impossible to deny that “Doomsday” and “Cast the First Stone” are supremely hooky death metal tunes. Additionally, give Dave Matrise credit: the man can death growl with the best of them, yet he can enunciate shockingly well. In and out in a 36-minute burst, these guys have never sounded tighter, groovier, nor better. (Spotify)
Luca Turilli's Rhapsody, Prometheus: Symphonia Ignis Divinus (Nuclear Blast): While metal traditionally shares a great deal in common with composer Richard Wagner, Luca Turilli has a tendency to head into more of a Puccini-style route. Or, even more disturbingly, Gilbert and Sullivan. His latest album under the Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody brand (so silly) tries in every way to out-do his former band Rhapsody, which results in one of the most ludicrously over the top power metal albums in recent memory. A colossal mess of orchestration and choirs that diminish the actual band’s role to that of a supporting act, its outlandishness is actually admirable, It’s like any album by Japanese avant-garde freakazoids Sigh, where you can’t make heads nor tails out of it all, but you’re also amazed how the whole shebang sticks together. For a whopping 74 minutes. Every bit as extreme as, well, extreme metal – and I’d argue even more so – the sheer audacity of this thing is stupefying, befuddling, awesome. Bravissimo, Luca. (Spotify)
Unleash The Archers, Time Stands Still (Napalm): Four years after the marvelous, self-released Demons of the Astrowaste, the British Columbia band returns with a slightly revamped lineup and a new deal with Napalm Records. As with their past work this is classic power/speed metal with a strong sense of history, yet more than willing enough to employ the odd modern extreme metal touches. The overall effect is the kind of epic grandeur you expect from this music, and singer Brittany Slayes turns in another powerhouse performance, singing in a commanding, deep voice and letting loose screams most of her peers wish they could pull off. Again, this record could use a little trimming – an hour is too long if you want to make an immediate impression – but “Tonight We Ride”, “Crypt”, and the wonderfully goofy “Test Your Metal” are easy highlights. It’s great to hear the band back after a lengthy time away. (Bandcamp)
Head Above Ground
Breaking Benjamin returned with their first album in six years, and if you needed further proof that tepid, mopey alt-metal is still popular 20 years later, there these guys were last week at the top of the US album chart, selling a whopping 135,450 units in its first week. I will give the band credit where credit’s due, their use of vocal melodies neatly offsets the tuned-down, dumbed down riffs they come up with (“Failure” is rather pleasant) but it’s flabbergasting that this maudlin stuff is the best American hard rock can do so far this summer.
Meanwhile, this past week has been a big one for August Burns Red. Not only is their new album Found in Faraway Places the strongest metalcore album to come out in years, but the public has noticed and responded, its 29,000 units sold catapulting the band into the top ten in the States. It’s the band’s best ever showing, both chart-wise and sales-wise, and considering the quality of the new record, it’s well earned.
Track of the Week
I won’t deny it, I missed Christian Mistress something awful. The band went on a little hiatus after the release of 2012’s excellent Possession, but have since relocated from Olympia, Washington to Portland, Oregon, revamped their lineup, and now are back with a cracking good album. More in keeping with their outstanding demo released in 2009, To Your Death is rawer, grittier, faster, which you can definitely hear in the new single “Open Road”, the band charging away at full NWOBHM throttle, Christine Davis making her presence known with her unique voice. Here’s that new perfect-for-summer metal tune you’ve been looking for.
Blabbermouth Headline of the Week
Horns Down: Geoff Tate, Maryland Deathfest’s underwhelming lineup, the metal hive mind.
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