Forever Undying

Excited crowd chatter turns to a cacophonous roar as the arena lights go out, the modest throng of 6,000 spectators in Edmonton, Alberta’s Rexall Place rising to its feet, cheers growing louder as the opening bars of the classic overture “The Hellion” begin. Silhouetted band members casually make their way to their marks on the stage, opening with a single chord flourish on the final note of the pre-recorded intro. After a hi-hat count-off by drummer Scott Travis, the unmistakable notes of “Electric Eye” chime in, the stage lights going up as guitarists Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing and bassist Ian Hill come into view. Above the drum riser is a backdrop featuring a gigantic eye, the iris of which opens to reveal the resplendent, leather-clad Rob Halford standing motionless and appearing downright regal, high above the crowd, intoning the great paranoia-inducing opening line of the song: “Up here in space / Looking down on you / My lasers trace / Everything you do.” There, in all their glory, in their 50s but sounding a quarter century younger, the mighty metal gods themselves.

Judas freakin’ Priest.

As the band continued into a set that mined its vast back catalogue, including the churning “Metal Gods”, the searing “Riding on the Wind” (with Halford in full, glorious screech mode), and the live staple “Breaking the Law”, I was struck by just how powerful this band was still capable of sounding more than 30 years into its career. It really shouldn’t have been any surprise to me, but as I watched Halford bend towards the stage floor, balancing on a knee-high mike stand in order to elicit maximum scream power (an odd, yet strangely intense and menacing pose), spewing the words from a Screaming for Vengeance nugget, it truly drove home to me just how ageless the best metal music can be — how, in the past few decades, as other baby boomer rock and pop stars and their fans have evolved with age (some more gracefully than others), metal’s song has always remained the same.

Now Slaying

Beseech, Sunless Days (Napalm)
Nothing new from these goth Swedes, but what’s there is enticing nonetheless: a keen sense of melody, plenty of gloriously moody songs, and the male/female interplay between lead singers Lotta Höglin and Erik Molarin. “Innerlane”, “The Outpost”, and a cover of Danzig’s “Devil’s Plaything” are good enough to steal the thunder from the hotly anticipated new disc by Lacuna Coil.

Children of Bodom, Are You Dead Yet? (Universal)
Instead of taking advantage of their new major label status, Bodom’s fifth album cruises along a bit too complacently. Sure, all the ingredients are there, like Alexi Laiho’s trademark screams, his nimble guitar shredding, and the spry keyboard touches, and but when compared to earlier work like Follow the Reaper, this one feels flat.

He Who Corrupts, The Smell of Money (Eugenics)
More Daughters than Napalm Death, what this searing, eight-minute EP lacks in production quality is made up by its sheer ambition. The Illinois band combines insane grindcore with recurring groove breakdowns, tossing in plenty of wickedly satirical lyrics as well. It’s chaotic, but extremely tight, highlighted by Tommy Camaro’s versatile vocals.

Hypocrisy, Virus (Nuclear Blast)
Peter Tägtgren continues to churn out the music, and Virus is a decidedly mixed bag, with doses of Gothenburg melodic death (“Warpath”), more melodic, midtempo excursions (“Fearless”), and moments of inspired, controlled aggression (“A Thousand Lies”). It may lack focus, but the abysmal “Living to Die” is the only weak track on an otherwise admirable CD.

Primal Fear, Seven Seals (Nuclear Blast)
Unabashedly old-school, the sixth release by the German band is yet another exercise in simple power metal, and while it’s nothing we haven’t heard before (and its devotion to Painkiller-era Judas Priest is more than a bit obvious), Ralf Scheepers’s Halfordesque howls and the Nauman/Leibing twin guitar leads make this album an undeniably fun one.

Only in recent years, as the pioneers of the sound close in on retirement age, have we truly come to notice just how much longevity metal music and the artists who perform it have. Motorhead continues to sound as ear-splitting as ever, as Lemmy Kilmister approaches 60, his trademark growl unchanged from 30 years ago. Alice Cooper is in good health (it’s got to be the golf) and sounds rejuvenated on his recent album, Dirty Diamonds. That scratchy-voiced, fatigues-wearing hobbit Udo Dirkschneider (Accept) and old leatherlungs himself, Ronnie James Dio, can still belt out the vocals. And although Ozzy Osbourne is a shadow of his former self (hell, he was a shadow of his former self in 1986), and the one metal icon who has actually become more decrepit as the years pass, he and Black Sabbath continue to perform to throngs of fans.

While the teen demographic is always largely responsible for the bulk of metal album sales, the most timeless, resilient albums don’t exactly cater specifically to adolescents. The same can’t be said for two of metal’s lesser spin-offs. Catharsis has always been a big reason why metal has always connected with young people, but while early metal bands dabbled in the “us versus them” themes in more abstract ways (tossing in allusions to the devil, the powers that be, etc.), aggressive “nu metal” acts thrived in the late ’90s, thanks to a much more direct approach, pandering to their audiences by singing specifically about how much it sucks to be a teen (which, as Bart Simpson once remarked, is as easy as shooting fish in a barrel) while churning out either uninspired drop-D chords or half-baked attempts at rapping.

Not surprisingly, nu metal is now in its death throes, and in its place these days are the equally hard-edged, but more melodic and punk-oriented bands like the Used, My Chemical Romance, and Billy Talent, who, by drawing heavily from the more blunt approach of punk and the confessional style of emo, have brought melodrama to a new level entirely. Earnest as all those bands are, their fanbases ultimately grow up, leaving the bands who holler tired junior high journal poetry sounding dated and irrelevant. Angst-ridden tunes like Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” and Billy Talent’s “Try Honesty” don’t have the legs to age well, compared to the finer balance of musical and lyrical aggression by their metal peers.

Metal in its truest sense, on the other hand, has never been specifically about the celebration of youth, but all about power and proficiency. As long as a good band has its chops and a devoted fanbase, it’ll have a long career — a point driven home with gusto by the perpetually indefatigable Iron Maiden. Triumphantly riding a wave of renewed popularity after their 1999 reunion, the masters of British metal have not lost a step. The year 2000’s Brave New World was a glorious return to the halcyon days of the late ’80s, and 2003’s Dance of Death continued the forward momentum, the band touring the globe to throngs of adoring audiences. And no matter what Sharon Osbourne will have you believe, their show-stealing run during this past summer’s Ozzfest was further proof.

Maiden has always enjoyed putting out live albums, and its fifth (sixth, if you include 1981’s Maiden Japan EP), Death on the Road, ranks as one of its better efforts. Performing in front of a rabid crowd in Dortmund, Germany, who try their best to match the insane audience on 2002’s Rock in Rio by singing along to even the new songs, Iron Maiden tear through a set comprised of old concert staples (“Hallowed Be Thy Name”, “Run to the Hills”) and fervent newer material, highlighted by “Rainmaker” (one of its best songs of the last two decades) and “No More Lies”. While the last thing we need is another rendition of “Number of the Beast” or “Wrathchild”, the performances of the newer material, plus the underrated “Lord of the Flies”, make up for the been-there-done-that feel of the double CD set.

As long as you can keep sounding sharp and powerful, nobody will care how old a metal act is, and the six members of Maiden, most approaching their 50s (Nicko McBrain being the one old fogy), sound as muscular as they ever have. Everybody’s favorite fencing flyboy, Bruce Dickinson, was apparently under the weather on this particular evening, as he does sound a touch flat every so often, but, true to form, he wills every high note out of himself in a typically passionate performance. As enjoyable as this live album is, do we really need another live CD from these guys? Not really (and quite frankly, you’d be best to hold out for the DVD version coming in February 2006), but if ever there was a testament to the ageless quality of classic heavy metal, it’s here.

As hard as it is for fans in their mid- to late 30s to admit, the great American bands of the ’80s are getting up there in age, and the reason why it’s so hard to believe they’re well past 40 is due to the fact that they continue to sound as tight today as they did two decades ago. Slayer still sounds monstrous. Megadeth has dwindled to just Dave Mustaine and a relatively unknown supporting cast, but 2004’s The System Has Failed was a modest triumph. And say what you will about Metallica’s studio output over the last 14 years, but its arena shows still pack a serious punch; that is, when it’s not playing dreck like “I Disappear”. Anthrax, too, has soldiered on, and while its popularity dipped after 1993, it stuck to recording and touring, playing smaller venues, and still maintaining a very devoted fanbase.

While the decade with John Bush on lead vocals was a good run, the nostalgia card proved too irresistible for Anthrax to play; much to the excitement of the older fans and the irritation of the younger ones (Anthrax is a rare band, in that two different generations of fans prefer two different lead singers), the “classic” lineup from its heyday (1985 to 1991) reunited early this year, complete with Belladonna at the helm once again. Of course, if the Pixies have taught us anything, it’s that when you reunite, you’ve got to saturate the market with compilations. Anthrax has done just that, releasing a live album, a best-of compilation, and two separate DVDs over the past summer, all this coming a year removed from a live CD/DVD and collection of re-recorded early tracks, all with Bush singing. It’s all such a shameless cash grab, but the compilation and live album are so darn good, it’s easy to forgive and forget.

I’ll be the first to admit that Anthrax’s early catalog tended to be rather overhyped and inconsistent in quality, with 1985’s Spreading the Disease and 1987’s Among the Living ranking as its finest work. While purists will decry the idea of a two-disc retrospective of the 85-91 years, Anthrology: No Hit Wonders works remarkably well. The weak songs have been weeded out, and a couple of essential non-album tracks (“I’m the Man” and “Bring tha Noize”) are included, making for two and a half hours of mosh-inducing fun. In fact, had it included the 1985 re-recordings of early classics “Metal Thrashin’ Mad” and “Panic”, from the Armed and Dangerous EP, I would have been tempted to call it damn near perfect.

Just as good is the cheekily titled Alive 2: The Music. Recorded in New Jersey this past June, the album boasts some impressively punchy production, not to mention a blazing performance by the band, as it tosses classic after classic, including “Among the Living”, “Caught in a Mosh”, “Madhouse”, and “I Am the Law”, even dusting off an old nugget like “Deathriders” for the oldsters. The all-around solid set is dominated by two individuals: drummer Charlie Benante, who continues to prove why he’s one of the best thrash drummers in the game; and Belladonna, who is in surprisingly fine form, both looking and sounding like he was packed away in 1991, brought out 14 years later, and wound up again for the reunion tour.

As I stood in amazement that night last month in Edmonton, hearing Rob Halford hit all the high notes on such immortal songs as “Victim of Changes”, “Beyond the Realm of Death”, and “Painkiller”, Judas Priest proved yet again that heavy metal is far from a young man’s game. In addition to Priest’s return to form on 2005’s Angel of Retribution, we’ve seen a stunning comeback by Swedish doom pioneers Candlemass, Corrosion of Conformity’s pummeling In the Arms of God, Napalm Death’s best album in years, and a surprisingly strong disc by the revamped Exodus. It’s a genre that refuses to wither and die, and not only do we hope that bands like Opeth, Cryptopsy, and Masotodon will continue to bring the thunder to the masses well past middle age, somehow we know they will. And something tells me that in 20 years’ time, they still won’t be able to drag Lemmy off the stage and pry that Jack and Coke from his ragged, octogenarian claws.

RATING 7 / 10