Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Best of 2019

It's New Years Day, 2020 so most likely I've heard everything from 2019 I'm going to hear at this point. I'm sure down the line I will discover some obscure records from the past year I missed out on and find myself deeply impressed, but for the time being, I think this is where we're at.

2019 wasn't a triumphant year for me; there were no amazing adventures to speak of though there was a fun filled football weekend in October and there was a short excursion to Quebec City. At this point M demands we visit the Great White North once a year so she can stop by Costco and acquire various home necessities on the cheaper Canadian dollar. The joys of being old and domesticated, I guess?  (As long as I can stop at Freeson Rock in Montreal, I can be a good sport!)

This year for me personally was mostly just about the grind. The effort to build that financial nest egg and to cultivate the skills I need for my next professional step. M has basically been in the same boat, if feeling less urgency given she's a few years younger than me. The MBA has gone well enough to start, and while I'm not really one for New Year's Resolutions, because they never get followed through on, I don't think it's a big risk for me to say that M and I will be having another big adventure of some sort, if not two of them, in 2020.

Sitting here experiencing old man fog regarding the best live bands I saw this year, and there were two shows that really stand out. One was a lineup featuring Saor, Wayfarer, and DC locals Sickdeer at a Atlas Brew Works in Washington DC. It was miserably hot and humid inside the crowded backroom of a brewery, but it was a fantastic performance by all bands. The other M and I saw the night before, in the basement of a coffee house called Songbyrd, also in Washington DC, where Khemmis absolutely crushed with their stoner-influenced doom and Atlanta black metal/black n' roll act Cloak made a fan out of me. Between the local venues of Baltimore (MDF in particular) and Washington DC, in 2019 the other highlights included Sinmara, Suffering Hour, Spirit Adrift, Rippikoulu, Naglfar, Guttural Secrete, Tomb Mold, Theories, Full of Hell, Borknagar, Scour, Brutality, Blood, Disassociate, Shape of Despair, and Vanum. There was also a roadtrip to Richmond, Virginia because Hypocrisy was playing and who knows when they'll be back in the States again.

Best development of the year that I observed is the plethora of Agalloch and Ulver inspired atmospheric black metal bands that are now dropping records. I'm not suggesting that these artists are tremendously "original" sounding, because you can't recapture the way "Bergtatt" or "Pale Folklore" sounded when they first dropped again. But bands like Minnesota's Ashbringer, Italy's Enisum, and multi-national band Sojourner all released outstanding albums that aren't even making my top 10 list. Collectively, these bands are releasing albums that sound "fresh" and "relevant" to my ears. Maybe it'll be remembered in a few years the way late 90's doom or early 90's death metal is.

The worst development is the abundance of YouTube videos of "reviewers" (i.e. nerds with even more spare time than I've got) who spent inordinate amounts of time telling you if or if not something is good. I mean, obviously I'm writing my thoughts here so I can see a little bit of "pot, meet kettle", but do you need a 45 minute album review to tell you if a 33 minute album is good or not? Here's a crazy idea, google the band or search them on Spotify, give it a few listens, and decide for yourself. That's why I try to find links for each of my top 10 albums; I like that shit and I want other people to check it out, like it, and give those bands money like I did so that those bands keep creating more art.

Most Disappointing Record of 2019

Tool Fear Inoculum

So there's two Batushka's out there and I can't keep up with which one is the one that isn't a whorish money grab by Metal Blade Records (after a quick internet search, I guess the one that released "Panichid" is kvlt and trve and the one that released "Hospodi" is the Faketushka...). There's also a coked up Abbath playing mediocre black n' roll when he's not in rehab for alcoholism...the rest of the Immortal guys win that dispute in artistic terms for sure (I do hope for a reunion though.) Death metal in general hasn't had the abundance of high quality releases I'd expect this year. But that said, there hasn't been a lot that I felt failed to meet my expectations.
That brings me to "Fear Inoculum". I like Tool, and I like proggy Tool. But Tool is at their best not when they're being proggy or playing stupid fucking nerd bullshit Fibonacci Sequences or whatever. Tool is at their best when they're being bombastic and writing bangers like "Vicarious". I don't give a fuck how many notes a musician can play or how precisely they can play those notes that might involve complicated finger techniques on their instruments. Does your music fucking rock? Do I want to crank it at high volume? If you can bust out a bunch of musical wizardry like Spiral Architect or Augury and blow my mind while still rocking that's awesome and yeah, you get more kudos than Devourment does for playing cave man riffs. But if your music just sounds like a bunch of pointless doodling that doesn't lead anywhere, I don't give a shit how complex it was to play or how much thought was put into writing music that makes me want to go to sleep.

"Fear Inoculum" has exactly one good song, "7empest", and if you listen to the album in sequence you're going to be asleep when it begins as track nine, 1 hour and 10 minutes into the record. Knowing that, I just go to Spotify and listen to the one good song, rather than sit through the snoozefest that leads to it. The worst part? This album will cost you a fortune to buy, see for yourself! (That's just the audio cd version, not the spiffy one that has it's own music player and visual do-hickey..)

My expectations for this were never that inflated, but given the nerds clutching their pearls about this band and dropping dumb money to buy the CD and see them perform at inflated prices and who have some bizarre belief that being willing to sit down bored out of your mind for 1 hour and 26 minutes makes you smarter and more sophisticated than the next music fan, I guess I'm gonna call this the big disappointment of the year. Much like Opeth, this band was better before 2010.

Honorable Mentions

Ashbringer Absolution
Belzebubs Pantheon of the Nightside Gods
Blood Red Throne Fit To Kill
Ceremony of Silence Outis
Cloak The Burning Dawn
Continuum Designed Obsolescence
Dead To A Dying World Elegy
Devourment Obscene Majesty
Disentomb The Decaying Light
Encephalic Brutality and Depravity
Enisum Moth's Illusion
Esoteric A Pyrrhic Existence
Exhorder Mourn The Southern Skies 
Fen The Dead Light
The Great Old Ones Cosmicism
Glare of the Sun Theia
Hath Of Rot and Ruin
Hideous Divinity Simulacrum
Imperium Dekadenz When We Are Forgotten
Isenordal Shores of Mourning
Mayhem Daemon
Mgla Age of Excuse
NecroticGoreBeast NecroticGoreBeast
Nile Vile Nilotic Rites
Obsequaie The Palms of Sorrowed Kings
October Tide In Splendor Below
Officium Triste The Death of Gaia
Organectomy Existential Disconnect
Pathology Reborn To Kill
Prostitute Disfigurement Prostitute Disfigurement
Sinmara Hvisi Stjarnanna
Spirit Adrift Divided by Darkness
Sojourner The Shadowed Road
Theories Vessel

10.) Mortiferum Disgorged from Psychotic Depths 

Dark, ominous doom/death of the sort that Profound Lore Records is known to release. I love the tone that they capture, and they manage to be plodding and miserable without losing my interest, which is what happens when you're slow and heavy but not actually creating a harmony or building to anything epic in your songwriting. Swampy, dank, and guttural. The way it should be.

9.) Nightfell A Sanity Deranged

Take someone from the hardcore scene during the "Entombed-core" revival, and introduce them to Celtic Frost and Bolt Thrower. That's what this sounds like; perhaps a WW1 tank plowing through trenches and murdering everything in sight on a particularly grey, miserable, damp day. 

8.) Dawn Ray'd Behold Sedition Plainsong

Absolutely ferocious and dark at the same time. Anarcho-Antifa punks with a healthy dose of Napalm Death's politics playing second wave black metal with serious urgency in their delivery. Heavy use of violins to carry a lot of melodies helps create a distinct sound. Incredibly righteous and a welcome counterbalance to the conservatism and NSBM bullshit that often plagues underground black metal. Not that it doesn't rage pretty fucking hard regardless of one's personal politics. 

7.) Vitriol To Bathe From The Throat Of Cowardice

Featuring a few songs from their debut EP, this is a ferocious blend of Hate Eternal and death-metal era Behemoth with the anger of Man Must Die. Raw vocals, non stop blasting drums, and just all around fast and furious top tier death metal in a year where I feel that there were a lot of death metal releases that were rather ordinary. 

6.) Falls of Rauros Patterns Of Mythology

One of the many well crafted albums by the emerging flock of post-Agalloch bands, FoR occupies the same space of warm, mellow acoustic passages that melds into tremelo heavy black metal that feels like it ever so pensively seeks something more grandiose and epic. Drenched with sorrowful melodies and even a smidgen of Spirit Adrift-styled guitar theatrics, I think the best way to experience Patterns of Mythology is on an open highway in a single complete listen. 

5.) Alcest Spiritual Instinct

Full admission; I'm a "Johnny come lately" to this French band. I think they opened an Anathema show that M dragged me to some years ago. By this time, Anathema sucked ass and ceased playing any of their old, good songs, so I was probably drinking and in the mood for something much more bloodthirsty. So my impression of Alcest wasn't great, and it wasn't until some years later when I heard them randomly on Spotify that I "got it"; I soon bought "Ecailles De Lune" and became a fan. So while I'm not really familiar with their more black metal incarnation, and barely hear anything black metal about the band, I deeply enjoy the ethereal, atmospheric sort of slightly "post" metal they perform. "Spiritual Instinct" is a bit more bombastic, a slight bit of the black metal influence is present, and overall this album is a whole lot catchier than the previous albums I'm familiar with. Is it still shoegaze-y and trippy? Absolutely. But it's constantly going forward, and flows in such a way that these 6 songs come and go before you know it, leaving you wanting a bit more. 

4.) Horrific Demise Excruciating Extermination

What happens when you pull a bunch of seasoned veterans from the Midwest death metal scene of the early 2000's? Featuring members (and ex-members) of Gorgasm, Lividity, Sarcophagy, Necrotic Disgorgement, and Human Filleted, the sum of the parts here surpasses all of those bands. Horrific Demise hits the right notes to recapture the glory days of late 1990's/early 2000's riff driven brutal death metal yet it sounds fresh enough that it's not some crappy attempt at nostalgia. The production and performances sound top notch professional, the songs are lean, mean, and have a lot of that early Dying Fetus "bounce" to them, and this album just feels fun. Absolutely no filler to be found in this collection of songs, the only sad thing is that because it lacks the sort of originality that tastemakers in the scene look for, it didn't get the attention it deserved. This is nearly perfect death metal and my hope is that the members of this band make Horrific Demise a priority. 

3.) Borknagar True North

First album with just ICS on Lead Vocals since "Quintessence" came out almost 20 years ago yet none of the evolution over that time has been lost as Borknagar still sounds like a massive, epic, ambitious melding of folk, 70's moog drenched prog, and black metal. Vortex shines in all of his varied vocal deliveries, and "variety" might be the best word to use to describe this album, which ranges from the fury of "The Fire That Burns" to the subdued yet majestic closer "Voices". Borknagar has created a space for themselves to create a wide range of sounds that seemlessly flow together and feel "right". Borknagar is long in the tooth, but still feels fresh, vibrant, and essential. There isn't a weak album in their catalog, and "True North" may rank among the best of them.

2.) Saor Forgotten Paths

2019 was the year I discovered this band, and I consider that, along with the opportunity to see them perform in July of this year (where I eagerly purchased their entire back catalog), to be highlights of the year. Saor plays an epic, melodic style of black metal with occasional nods to Scottish inspired folk music. Tasteful usage of keys, flutes, violins, and gentle guitar interludes lend further in creating an emotional sounding ode to Scotland while distinguishing Saor from the American bands looking to Agalloch for inspiration. More importantly, none of it sounds like cheese! It could be easy for something like this to fall of the rails, but the performances by multi-instrumentalist Andy Marshall (only permanent member of the band) are absolutely top notch, the production quality more than adequate, and the songs may be too drawn out for some, but I feel that the extended lengths of the tracks (3 out of the 4 songs surpass 10 minutes in length) give space to allow the harmonies to implant themselves in the listener. 

1.) Blood Incantation  Hidden History of the Human Race

 I probably gave this one away when I put it on my "best of the decade" list. I tried to think of reasons why it shouldn't be number one, and nothing was valid. I can't hold the fact they've got some buzz behind them against them; hell it's not like I was handed a copy of their demo and followed them since. I got into the band because "Starspawn" was a straight-fire album and I discovered it because there was hype. I guess now that they're starting to become less obscure (which is silly anyway, this is death metal released on Dark Descent Records, if it sold 10,000 copies I'm shocked) that certain elements of the underground predictably shit on them. Heaven forbid they get signed by Relapse or Nuclear Blast. The thing is, this record is recorded the way death metal should be recorded. It sounds murky yet clear, there's warmth in the guitar tones, all of the instruments are audible, nothing sounds overly compressed. I see more bands, if they have the means, going this route in the future, especially as vinyl becomes the predominant physical media people purchase (I'll stick with CDs since I don't have a vinyl turntable in my car, where I consume most music.)

Musically, it hits the notes of the more "progressive" 90's death metal bands, especially Immolation and Death. Maybe Morbid Angel to a lesser extent with its obsession with themes (Morbid Angel had ancient Sumeria, Blood Incantation has space aliens and ancient Egypt.) Reverbed growls layer over churning, twisting riffs and healthy doses of over the top guitar theatrics and tones that would have made "Sound of Perseverance" era Chuck Schuldiner proud. 

Blood Incantation made a thoughtful, intelligent record that clearly had a lot of work and love put into it to make it sound great. The fact it's only 4 tracks, including the 18 minute epic closer, leaves you wanting more when its over. I'm won't award them the championship belt for best band in death metal quite yet, but another release of this quality would probably be all that it takes. 

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The best ten metal albums of the decade, so sayeth me.

Just seeing the end of the decade approach us, as I approach the beginning of my 4th decade on this spinning rock myself, is kind of eye opening. It's always fun to look back on where I was ten years ago; newly married to M, broke as fuck, just transferring from community college to McState University to earn my BA. Hadn't been west of the Mississippi River yet, nor even owned a passport. Also legitimately about 90lbs lighter than I am today, with fewer grey hairs, so I guess some things were better ten years ago. Then again, since then I've roadtripped nearly the entire continental United States, completed that BA, as well as one post-grad degree and began a second one, did a pair of prestigious internships at DC Think Tanks, tripled my income, accumulated some shiny toys, managed to remain married to M (who also accomplished amazing things!) and relative to this blog, continue to and perhaps even to a greater degree maintained my connection to and love of this ridiculous obscure noise that is underground heavy metal.

Nothing can ever capture you the way it does when you're young and unfamiliar. That high school breakup hurt more than perhaps a failed relationship in your mid-20's would. The second time you visit a restaurant where you had an amazing never quite lives up to that first time, even if it still was perfectly fine. It's the same with music; so much of what you listen to as you get older, if you were truly passionate about a genre of music to begin with, will just never capture you the same way as it did the first time you heard those sounds. That's why all of these fucking dinosaur bands keep touring until they're 70; they're collecting bank off of the nostalgia people feel for when I guess their lives were fresh, exciting, and for many of them at their peak. Slayer can suddenly announce they're "retiring", and the rush of nostalgia means that instead of playing 1500 seat rooms, they're playing to 10,000 or more at amphitheaters.

I guess for me that wasn't a problem; high school and being a teenager in a smaller, southern college town was a fucking shit experience. The last ten years, weight gain aside, have truly been my best ten on this planet. So here's to being the old guy in the room, who still goes to shows solo sometimes just to check out who the young up and coming bands are, because maybe someday when I'm at retirement age this current era of metal will make me feel nostalgic.

With that, here's my top ten albums for the decade (2010-2019.) My criteria was pretty simple:

- Did I listen to this album a whole fucking lot? Basically, did I connect with it personally?
- Did the album have a huge impact, or will it have an impact on the music to come?
- Did the album represent something different or like a shift in the sounds being produced by the scene in general?

Not every album is going to cleanly check each of those categories beyond the first one, but as the author offering his subjective thoughts on the last decade of underground metal, here's what I came up with.

10.) Anaal Nathrahk Vanitas (2012)

My reasoning for this album is that, personally, it is my entry point to the band. It also represented a summation of so many styles that in the previous decade may have been distinct from one another; this album isn't Anaal Nathrahk's first stab at merging black metal with industrial samples and treatments, epic cleanly sung choruses, and some tasty At The Gates riffage, but it was probably their most mature, cohesive take on it. I think that this cross pollination of subgenre styles in 2019 is basically expected, as I can listen to an up and coming band like Vitriol and hear elements of that chaotic but memorable style that Anaal Nathrahk was doing at the beginning of the decade.

9.) Hamferd Tamsins Iikam (2018)

Is there such a thing as "post-funeral doom"? Hamferd plays at those slow ethereal tempos, with those massive monolithic riffs. But there's also a certain beautiful serenity about this album, in between the massive riffs and growls, and the tortured operatic singing; I don't speak Faroese but this album reeks of despair. I feel like this album was a shift away from so many of the bands who, with great success, borrowed from Katatonia, Swallow The Sun, and Rapture prior to this release. This is very likely the most obscure choice on my list, but as I heard it then, I remain convinced that doom fans are going to visit this album in the next few years and buy into it big time.

8.) Wormed Exodromos (2013)

So much of the criticism about brutal or technical death metal is that the subgenres are limited by self imposed constraints; artwork and album art have to look a certain way, other than playing faster or playing with more notes and arpeggios or triggering those blasts to go even faster, there's nothing innovative or creative that can be done anymore. The response to that is Wormed, who defy that with their combination of ferocity, jagged rhythms, incomprehensible vocals, and atmosphere that actually sounds like being sucked into a black hole; this wasn't just caveman slam metal. Sure there were other bands, notably Origin, who delved into the cosmic themes before Wormed did, but Wormed managed to create a distinct sound which really reached its maturity with Exodromos; technical, brutal, groovy...Wormed did it all. When I heard bands like Disentomb in 2019 try to write "intellectual slam", I feel that's the impact that Wormed brought to the table.

7.) Trypticon Melana Chasema (2014)

This is the fully evolved version of what Celtic Frost was aspiring to for years; definitely after CF reformed and released Monotheist in 2005. Dark, ominous, foreboding, reeking of sludge and mood. Probably the best record Thomas Gabriel Fischer ever participated on. I still listen to this often. Enough reason to go on the list.

6.) Blood Incantation Hidden History of the Human Race (2019)

This might be recency bias that I rate this at all, or possibly my desire to avoid said bias that keeps me from rating this higher. Blood Incantation represent where death metal is in 2019; sure there's the tech-death olympics to see who can play the most notes the fastest with the most pristine production, and there's certainly a healthy amount of slam bands, and deathcore bands who are evolving into one of those niches, but at the sunken depths of the underground it's bands like Blood Incantation, who emphasize mood and atmosphere above all. Murkier production values meet Immolation vibes, and in certain spots visits Nile-sounding Middle Eastern influences. The songs themselves, of which there's just 4, and only 3 of those have vocals, are grimy death metal but clearly have underpinnings elsewhere; I've read reviews throwing out names like Yes and King Crimson. I'm not a prog rock guy so I don't know one way or another to agree with that, but I wouldn't dispute for a moment that Blood Incantation aren't top notch musicians; there's plenty of guitar theatrics abound here. That said, what I think is going to be the lasting impact of this album might not even be the material on it, which is outstanding, but the fact the album was recorded to tape rather than digitally. The result was that Blood Incantation largely recaptured the best aspects of the 1990's productions that make people so warmly remember how good all of those death metal records by seminal artists like Obituary and Morbid Angel sounded. I think this style of recording, and the warmth it adds to the recorded sound of death metal, is going to come back in a big way.

5.) Full of Hell Trumpeting Esctasy (2017)

I think Full of Hell's ambitiousness in collaborating with noise artists like Merzbow and The Body is what gets the nerds at Pitchfork and Rolling Stone willing to pay attention to them, but Full of Hell is at their best when they keep the samples and nerding to a minimum and just viscerally go for the jugular. Trumpeting Esctasy is probably Full of Hell's peak at indulging their rage monsters within, as for most of this album's 11 tracks and 23 minutes they are peak deathgrind, with blastbeats and roars and razor sharp guitars punishing the listener. Combined with an impressive live show, I think they hit the 2010's in much the same way as Pig Destroyer did in the decade before. The fact Full of Hell are a bit deathier in their grind makes me like them better.

4.) Panopticon Kentucky (2012)

The lineage of this nature focused black metal feels like it obviously traces its roots back to Agalloch, but also even further back, like towards Ulver's Bergtatt album as a spiritual ancestor. Panopticon began as, and really still is, a low-fi one man project by Austin Lunn which encompasses the totality of his musical influences. Kentucky was, and remains, a very bold album as Lunn, who plays basically everything in Panopticon, alternated between Kentucky bluegrass and blistering folk-inspired black metal. It's held together with with a dark enough theme, the struggles of the working class in rural Kentucky; some of the tracks are literally calls to unionize coal miners. This sort of left wing politics in black metal also is a paradigm shift in a genre notorious for pro-fascist NSBM artists and the (at times) suffocating conservatism of many black metal "elite" fans. For me personally, it's been a rabbit hole into Nordvis and Bindrune Recordings and similar sounding artists like Falls of Rauros and Nechochwen. I think there's also been a boom in similar sounding bands, especially from America (the "Cascadian sound") and the UK (Saor, Fen, Winterfellyth), since this band kinda "broke out." Panopticon has continued to release great albums throughout the decade, but Kentucky, with it's most blatant bluegrass influences, remains their peak, IMO.

3.) Pallbearer Heartless (2017)

I think most fans would pick Pallbearer's debut, Sorrow and Extinction as their album of choice, but for me it's their third album, Heartless. Pallbearer pretty much immediately emerged in 2011 as challengers to the throne for best doom band. Hipster and Pitchfork/Noisey approved, nevertheless Pallbearer borrowed from a variety of influences ranging from classic rock to Rwake and New Orleans sludge to write oppressively slow, heavy, yet deeply soulful doom. The reason I give Heartless the nod is because on this effort, they ever so slightly embraced their prog rock and classic rock sensibilities and picked up the pace ever so slightly, crafting a much more listenable record. When Pallbearer releases an album now, it feels like a big deal, and that's more than I can say for many bands who I do enjoy.

2.) Gorguts Colored Sands (2013)

Death metal, now long in the tooth from it's thrash-based origins in the late 80's, has undergone several "movements" as bands have tried to distinguish themselves. Gorguts, in their own history, certainly reinvented themselves from the meaty death metal of Considered Dead to the hyper-technical and admittedly almost unlistenably discordant Obscura album. After a hiatus following the suicide of their drummer, Luc Lemay reactivated the band but instead of retreading their past, went in another direction altogether. Borrowing a bit from bands like Ulcerate, Gorguts used those discordant sounds to create something that, instead of dark and ominous, was still furious but also bombastic and majestic at least as much as a death metal band can be. Colored Sands is both challenging and engaging and demonstrated that death metal doesn't have to be blood splatter and gore, but that it also engage as, dare I say, "high art" if there is such a thing. Much like Wormed, I feel that some of their influence has rubbed on other bands within the death metal scene.

1.) Behemoth The Satanist (2014)

In 2019, it seems to be cool to shit on Adam "Nergal" Darski because he really has made it clear he doesn't give 2 fucks about the metal scene's nebulous "code." Success makes you uncool; having other ventures like barber shops or dating fashion models is apparently against the "code" as determined by the groupthink and memes of the metal underground. Darski obviously doesn't give a shit and why should he? He released an album that not just myself, but it seems much of the "metal press" agrees was the best album of the 2010's.

By the late 2000's, Behemoth was an established metal institution of sorts, having morphed from a mediocre kvlt black metal band into a Polish death metal powerhouse. Albums like Evangelion and Demigod were full of ragers that held up against any of the undergound's Polish darlings (Yattering, Lost Soul, etc.) They were touring world wide, including the United States, and drawing. They could have stayed the course and probably did pretty decent for themselves.

Then Darski was diagnosed with Leukemia and had to fight for his life. Normally, faced with one's impending mortality, people have a funny way of discovering religion and trying to make amends for all of the shit things they've done. Darski? Not a chance. He beats the disease, then records the defiant album The Satanist, a manifest that offers no apologies for his life philosophy. Musically, many of the traits from Behemoth's death metal era remain present; the vocal delivery remains raw throated as ever and the blasts are still quite present. But some of the elements from their black metal era crept forward again, as did a variety of outside musical influences to craft a distinct sound and more haunting mood; this was Behemoth, but more. Angrier, darker, more aggressive, moodier.

The hype this record had to overcome was enormous; "metal media" basically talked this up like it was the second coming of Reign in Blood and to say that it was comparable to reunification of Dissection would be accurate. The front man of this band literally came back from facing death to record this album. Anything less than a masterpiece would have been completely shit on. Instead, Behemoth 100% delivered, and to dispute that is probably rooted in motivations that have nothing to do with the music contained within The Satanist's 45 minutes. What one thinks of Adam "Nergal" Darski in 2019 (honestly, he does some corny and mildly cringe things sometimes, but nothing that represents a crime against the metal scene, stop taking yourselves so goddamn serious, folks) has no impact on the fact that Behemoth did succeed in delivering their Reign in Blood.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Scapegoats and Uncomfortable Truths

Dear Community of Fellow Heavy Metal Enthusiasts,

I'm rather embarrassed that we need to have this conversation. Alas, it seems that to our collective chagrin and my unfortunate lack of surprise, this topic needs to be addressed and understood. If your attention span is as short as I fear it is, I'll summarize what you really need to know in one sentence.

Heavy Metal lyrics, regardless of subgenre, do not represent a how-to manual and if you're too stupid to get it, please excuse yourself from the hall so that the rest of us may continue to enjoy ourselves. 

That's right. Fuck right off. No Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla for you.

Now to elaborate why this has to be said. Yet again, America ran up the score on what we do best, which is kill our fellow citizens. Within the last 2 or 3 weeks, we've had angry white dudes shoot up Gilroy, California (3 dead), El Paso, Texas (22 dead?), and Dayton, Ohio (9 dead.) At this point, with just under 40 years of time spent on this planet and as a citizen of this country, I feel confident and justified in saying that other white men, especially conservative white men, scare me more than any other collective group of people. I mean, really, what's a Arab gonna do to me besides make some really good hummus and falafel? Hispanics? Tacos, Pupusas, and fat-bottomed women. White people mostly can't cook and most white broads got no ass. Maybe that's why white dudes are angry? I guess having wife'd a South American is why I don't suffer from these afflictions of "fucking dumbass."

Where conservative Americans see a danger to democracy, I see deliciousness.

But what's inspiring this online rant is that last of the 3 most recent massacres. The shithead that decided to kill 9 people just trying to have a good time on a Saturday night is named Connor Betts. The only thing you should remember about him was that he was a piece of shit and I'm glad he's dead. I hope he's buried in an unmarked grave, because fuck him. He's a trash person.

The guy under this hood was a loser and we're better off without him.

However, during his utterly worthless, pointless, and meaningless existence, he self identified as several things. Anime fan. Antifa supporter. A fan of male pronouns. And quite inconveniently, as a metalhead. But not just any kind of metalhead; the kind who formed shitty pornogrind bands. Just like nearly everyone else who plays in a metal band in Ohio, going back to at least the late 90's/early 2000's. Because of this, now we have to deal with unwanted attention.

Here's the truth about metal, especially "extreme metal": there's a lot of "problematic" subject matter in the imagery and lyrics of the bands. It makes sense; aurally, metal is violent, aggressive, hard and fast music. Singing pleasantly about flowers and cupcakes really wouldn't fit the aesthetic. We can go on and on about other forms of media that also have problematic content, but that's not really necessary. Because I think what I'm about to say transcends music and can be applied to any sort of media one consumes.

In order to appreciate a subgenre like pornogrind or some of the grislier artists in death metal, it requires two things; an admittedly depraved, dark sense of sarcastic humor, and the maturity to separate fiction from reality. If you're going to listen to artists like Gut or Cock and Ball Torture or some of the more obscene death metal artists like Lividity or Waco Jesus, you have to be able to understand that these bands are not advocating sick or perverse behavior. It's shock value, it's extremity for the sake of extremity, and it's meant to be taken with several grains of salt. The punchline of the joke is that these bands are singing about utterly gross, sickening, ridiculously over the top things and the act of doing so is the point of humor. They're not promoting a particular truth or ideology. Prostitute Disfigurement is not telling you that you should kidnap, rape, murder, and dissect the dead bodies of hookers; they're creating horrific imagery that fits the aesthetic of the very extreme style of death metal that they perform.

I thought better of actually posting an album cover.

Let me spell it out more explicitly; if you do think these bands represent anything other than a slightly and admittedly disturbing choice of entertainment, you've got problems. Serious problems. You need help. Further, I'd say it's the responsibility of those around you to raise alarms, red flags, and if necessary report you to the appropriate authorities if you appear to be a danger to anyone else.

Side rant: Just to elaborate a bit further on these styles of heavy music; most of the musicians performing in gore heavy death metal or pornogrind are terrible. And the shelf life even for good bands that perform this style of death metal can be limited. Yeah, the new Prostitute Disfigurement album rips really hard, but for comparison, hearing (Cleveland, Ohio's own) Regurgitation recycle the same porn inspired stage banter at MDF in May of this year was kinda....sad. Like they hadn't evolved or found anything else to bring to the table since they originally released "Tales of Necrophilia" before I was old enough to drink. It felt stale, and sorta embarrassing in a cringe way. /endrant
I guess you could say that some of those Ohio bands from the early 2000's didn't age as well as hoped.

I highly doubt Connor Betts' association with extreme music is what drove him to kill. It's also highly improbable that his profession of "leftist" politics is what led him to kill; kinda weird having major issues with women (I hated high school and most of my classmates, but I didn't keep a "kill list" or a "rape list"; I just dropped out ASAP) but being willing to vote for Elizabeth Warren for president. He did seem to have a lot of psychological issues, and an unhealthy fascination with guns. These are factors that as an armchair psychiatrist I'd believe seem to be more likely causes. With that said, shitheads like Connor Betts don't belong among our collective scene. Whether we want it or not, its our responsibility to identify and exclude these assholes from our scene, or else they'll be the cancer that kills it.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

March of the SJWs

This crude meme kinda sums up where a subset of underground metal fans have arrived in 2019. Where I once found myself as a fan concerned by the presence of racists and other xenophobic elements within metal, I now find myself flustered and annoyed by a burgeoning crowd of "scene police" that are seeking to dictate to the underground-at-large what's acceptable. As recent episodes with Uada, MGLA, and past shitshows with bands such as Destroyer 666 have shown, the folks at Metalsucks and the Kim Kelly's of the internet are seeking to shine light on what they feel is the cancer of intolerance within the scene.

Here's the problem. These are the same motherfuckers who all will be eager to hype up the latest Darkthrone album. You know, the band that used to play "True Norweigan Aryan Black Metal". And tell people who complained that they were being "jewish."
It's not like this is a recent revelation or hidden secret.

We'd call this racistt too, but Fenriz has cat pictures online so it's exempt.

I'm not defending Naziism or alt-right rhetoric. Pepe the Frog can eat a fat dick. (I can also watch Nazis get punched all damn day.) I'm also not defending the dumb shit that KK Warslut of D666 says from the stage. I mean fuck, the guy calls himself "KK Warslut", why are we taking anything this guy says seriously? But funny how there's a double standard when Fenriz's quirky cat photos mean clicks to websites.

This photo is worth at least 3 extra clicks in 2019 for this shitty blog.

This effort to drudge up dubious or past connections to unsavory rhetoric or connections by musicians to reprehensible ideologies isn't about making the world a better place, or "cleansing the scene" even. It's Social Justice Warriors trying to score fucking points to impress fellow SJW's within the metal community. You know how I know? How many of these fuckers, who tolerate anti-Christian messages in metal music, throw a fit a the first sign of anti-Islamic themes in metal music as xenophobic? How many of them are eager to promote Castrator's advocacy of violence against men but pushed Willowtip Records to not release latest Prostitute Disfigurement? I assure you, SJW's will tie themselves up in knots to try to explain a difference in gendered violence, power dynamics, etc. (I think both bands rip, btw.)

Try explaining that this band was founded by a bunch of jews from New York...
What I'm saying is this; metal music, and popular culture at large, is FULL of problematic messages.  Am I supposed to not watch Lethal Weapon because Mel Gibson is a known anti-Semite with a weird Jesus fetish? What about Pulp Fiction and Quentin Tarantino's weird obsession with the N-bomb?

This name and shame game doesn't even de-platform the offending bands; they find other places to perform. You think those blackmetal bands don't find a basement to play in if that's what it comes to? You've just forced people who don't give a fuck about politics to choose a side, and counter-productively, they're going to be lazy and side with the band you're trying to prevent them from seeing.

They will definitely find a way just as easily as I can steal images from Google.

I think that doing this type of shit is an enormous disservice and counter productive to the actual cause of promoting social justice. One, call out culture doesn't work. In fact, ... "call-out culture pretends to be activism while actually just assuaging the insecurities — especially white guilt — of someone looking to convince others of their rightness." I find myself routinely in disagreement with people who express political views, particularly pro-Trump or pro-Republican Party views, but I have found that calling them "dumb dumbs" (even though they're often regurgitating absurd talking points) just makes them double down on stupid. It's the Sunk Cost Fallacy. Instead of insulting them for being misguided, I just objectively explain the problems I find with their views, while occasionally acknowledging when perhaps their views aren't as wrong as people who treat political opinions as sport would perceive. In diplomacy you give people rope to pull themselves out of the abyss.

The rules of language and cultural norms are ever shifting goal posts. In this age of information, it changes faster than at any previous time in human history. I think we can agree that in 2019, certain symbols and certain types of jokes aren't cool or funny anymore. I mean, even fucking Phil Anselmo, who puts his foot in his mouth at least once a year saying something stupid and potentially racist, understands that using Confederate Flag imagery isn't acceptable anymore. Varg, everyone's favorite LARPing racist buffoon and convicted murderer, really isn't entitled to a public platform to ramble on incoherently about his worldview. (Meaning, he can have whatever views he wants and express it, but you're not obligated to facilitate it or provide audience to it.) But are we going to shit on all of the art that was created in a prior time because by 2019 standards it's problematic without any sort of critical analysis of what the intent of that art even was? Do we really think Cannibal Corpse, a band that is now comprised of dudes in their 50's, are pro-rape because they wrote "Stripped, Raped, and Strangled" back in 1994 when they were in their 20's? Do they have to spend a least some portion of every interview until the end of the band defending the art they created in the 1990's? Was writing a song with that type of content even a message about women or, much more likely, just part of the ultra-violent horror themed lyrics that the band has always written?

This guy is still a dirtbag. He'll never change. But trying to silence him just makes his voice louder.

My conclusion is this; no we should not just throw away all of those old records and pretend that old art doesn't exist. And you shouldn't feel guilty for listening to it and enjoying it, because it ultimately influenced so much of what's out there today in this golden age for metal fans to discover music. At the same time, musicians are people, and people are imperfect. Some of them have shitty philosophies on life. You don't change their minds by just doing the "call out" thing; if anything you're giving them a bigger platform because of the extra attention they're now getting. Ask Destroyer 666 how their feud with Metalsucks went, and I imagine they'd tell you it was one of the best things to ever happen to the band. But you know what happens with age, travel, education, and experience? People evolve. As Phil Anselmo demonstrates, it can be messy and uneven, but they do evolve and grow. You think the guys from MGLA, as their band gets bigger, they travel, and meet people from around the world, are really gonna want to remain associated with any NSBM bullshit? I doubt it. I think that the sooner people with skeletons in their own closets stop with the "virtue signalling" and SJW call out bullshit, the better.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Best of 2018

2018 was an interesting year for me. Made one career change, then another. Decided that having one post-graduate degree wasn't enough, so I enrolled in a second one. Didn't really get to take one super long vacation, but M and I did have a few cool excursions to the Great White North as well as to the warm waters of Charleston, South Carolina. I also discovered that as I get older and lazier, that it's easier to just use Spotify to discover new bands than it was to download them from one of the online blog sites. 

I didn't go to a ton of concerts in 2018; obviously as a resident of the Washington DC metro area I made it to the Maryland Deathfest; the 2018 edition, despite losing headliners to health scares and visa issues, ended up being one of the best editions in the last several years. Sinister is an absolute beast of a live band. I had the opportunity to catch Demilich on tour as well as they were on a fantastic tour package with newcomers Blood Incantation, Artificial Brain, and Scorched. I also got to see Paradise Lost and Solstafir as well as the so-called "final" tour of Slayer. Per usual, I'm probably overlooking something.

At any rate, I certainly did manage to cram my CD shelves even more full of albums; 79 of them released in 2018 according my software. Developing this year's list was difficult in that I heard a lot of albums I liked a lot, but I had a lot of trouble assigning a rank or preference to them.

Biggest Disappointment of 2018

Machine Head Catharsis

I could have said Behemoth here, but the truth is that Behemoth didn't release a bad record or one I haven't listened to a bunch at all. It was pretty good; just a radical departure from The Satanist, which right now is my current album of the decade. On the other hand, Machine Head isn't a band that I'd ever count among my absolute favorites, but I'm not going to say that I didn't really enjoy the majority of their back catalog. Excluding The Burning Red and Supercharger, I thought they were certainly enjoyable enough as a relatively easy to digest sort of metal; they were rather straight forward and only occasionally dipped their toes into anything resembling extremity but they were a logical progression of thrash rather than a rehash of Kreator and Demolition Hammer or anything like that. At their best, they were a modern sort of Metallica with a decent sense of "anthemic melody."

But Catharsis is the absolute drizzling shits. I'm absolutely convinced that the tool bags from Metal Sucks thought it would be funny to see if anyone would bite on a nu-metal revival. Turns out, exactly one person outside of dwindling 40 somethings that still attend the "Gathering of the Juggaloes" did: Robb Flynn. At the expense of literally tearing his own band apart, Catharsis not only revisited their mediocre era but double downed on it. 

(Hey, we've got Dave McClain back in Sacred Reich out of it, which almost makes me rethink this disappointment thing...)

What makes Catharsis the year's biggest disappointment for me is a combination of two things. First, most of the other noteworthy releases that I heard really delivered. Second, this may be an unpopular opinion with the underground metal groupthink, but I actually think Robb Flynn is a pretty damn talented individual who writes songs that certainly have a distinct style; you know it's Machine Head when you hear the tone of their guitars; even when they play shitty nu-metal. Hell, while I think he is certainly virtue signalling and pea-cocking when he makes political statements, it's not like I've necessarily disagreed with the substance of what he was saying. This was just the unfortunate manifestation of a man's mid-life crisis. 

Honorable Mentions:

Aborted Terrorvision
Abysmal Torment The Misanthrope
Ahtme Sewerborn
Amorphis Queen of Time
At The Gates To Drink From The Night Itself
Birth of Depravity From Obscure Domains
Bufihimat I
Convocation  Scars Across
Cryptopsy Tome II: The Book of Suffering
Deiquisitor Downfall of the Apostates
Fixation on Suffering Confined in Obscurity
Galvanizer Sanguine Vigil
Harakiri For The Sky Arson
Hooded Menace Ossuarium Silhouettes Unhallowed
Horrendous Idol
Immortal Northern Chaos Gods
Infuriate Infuriate
Mass Infection Shadows Became Flesh
Monstrosity The Passage of Existence 
Mortuous Through Wilderness
Panopticon The Scars of Man on the once Nameless Wilderness Pt 1
Scorched Ecliptic Butchery
Un Sentiment
Wayfarer World's Blood

10.) Khemmis Desolation

My first criteria for what gets put on my list is how often did I really reach for it to listen to. I listened to Desolation a lot; their formula of Pallbearer-esque despair and heavy grooves with a smidge of classic heavy metal is very effective. Khemmis is one of the most "catchy" bands I've heard in the last few years. 

9.) Necrophobic Mark of the Necrogram

Necrophobic has been around for quite a while, but this album is the first time I really dove into what the band does. They're an effective machine that straddles the line between death and black metal with precision. Nothing here reinvents the wheel, but this is a good album to get a speeding ticket to.

8.) Glorior Belli The Apostate

This French band somehow infuses their black metal with heavy doses of New Orleans-styled sludge and makes it work. When they rip, they do it as well as anyone, but when they restrain themselves and venture towards (dare i say it?) "-core" territory on tracks like "Runaway Charlie" and "Rebel Reveries", Glorior Belli truly distinguish themselves as one of black metal's boldest and most creative acts. 

7.) Solstice (UK) White Horse Hill

This long running but seldom heard from doom troop from Britain delivered an album that's epic yet mournful, heavy as fuck with a flat out nasty guitar tone. To the uninitiated, this could be best described as somewhere between Candlemass and Primordial (or more accurately, their countrymen Mael Mordha.)  

6.) Construct of Lethe Exiler

This band is actually semi-local for me; I've probably crossed paths with some of those involved at some point in the now distant past at shows at Jaxx Nightclub in the Washington, DC area (one of those forgotten local venues that every town has.) Exiler also features guest appearances from members of Benighted and Near Death Condition, and the result is a band that combines brutality with technique, drawing influence from Morbid Angel with judge a smidge of the current dischordant death metal that's out there (Ulcerate and Gorguts.) 

5.) Uada Cult Of A Dying Sun

It seems somewhat popular to shit on these guys. Either because they got popular off their first album and therefore despised by people who refuse to listen to post-2000 black metal or because people believe in some sort of transitive property where if an apolitical black metal band shares a stage with a black metal band with some repugnant political/social/racial views, that in turn they must also be dirtbags. 

I don't ascribe to this nonsense. What I hear is a band with catchy melodies, sufficient venom, and vibes that remind me of both MGLA and Agalloch. What they lack in true "originality" they more than make up for with execution and listenability. What makes this better than the debut is that there's more variety to the vocal intonations and the songs themselves are a bit longer and more ambitious. That said, I suspect that this is a band that people have unfortunately already made their minds up about before hearing them.

4.) Lago Sea of Duress

Tremendously well executed murky death metal in the vein of Morbid Angel and Immolation, with some tasteful guitar theatrics to boot. One of the best albums that Unique Leader Records has released in years, which is a bit of a surprise given the otherwise deathcore/slam direction the label has largely taken a direction towards. This band is probably a few high profile festival appearances away from getting some serious recognition. 

3.) Agrimonia Awaken

Not the kind of album I'd expect to be released by Southern Lord Recordings, but apparently this band has its roots in crust punk and post-metal, yet released the type of album I've wished Opeth would have done years ago. Full of miserable guitar harmonies, thundering kick drums, and acidic vocals that stretch across 10 minute long proggish song structures, this album is definitely a grower in that you're not gonna hear 3 minute bangers, but if you put it on as background music while driving, you'll quickly find yourself captivated by the spell this band delivers. It's an intriguing and satisfying listen that got a lot of repeat listens from me. 

2.) Augury Illusive Golden Age

Another Opeth-y album? Not exactly though there's some vibes of that or even long obscure Spiral Architect contained here. But make no mistake, Illusive Golden Age is a brutal death metal record and while they're ambitiously hypertechical, brutality and intensity is not sacrificed here. There's some vocal variation but it's all varying deliveries of raw throated and guttural growls. A cacophony of early Cryptopsy meets Atheist and Cynic but delivered with a tasteful restraint and razor sharp focus. In my opinion, more than the more popular Obscura, Augury assert their claim to the throne of tech-death world champs in 2018, and only their own lack of output (this was nearly 10 years after their previous outstanding album, Fragmentary Evidence) prevents them from keeping that title going forward. 

1.) Hamferd Tamsins Iikam 

2018 introduced this absolutely miserable six piece from the Faroes Islands to me. This actually sounds like a ship lost at sea being battered by brutal waves under a cloudy, rain drenched sky. Large crushing riffs that kinda remind me of Ahab and a songwriting style that builds to peaks and crescendos make for an involved listen. Vocalist Jon Aldara (apparently he also does vocals for Barren Earth) is immensely talented, both with a ghastly low death metal growl that would make most Finnish growlers wet themselves, as well as a painfully emotive operatic clean singing delivery. This tops my list because 1.) I listened to it a lot all year long, 2.) I can't really name another band that sounds like this (certainly no others that sing in Faroese...) 3.) the superb quality of what's contained here. I think once this album has had a couple years of exposure to be absorbed by doom metal bands, it'll be acknowledged as a classic the same way Turn Loose the Swans or Solinari or Antithesis of Light are. 


Monday, February 19, 2018

A Woman's Place...

The joke goes like this:

"The only metal a woman knows is pots and pans."

Otep doesn't really help disprove this, of course.
In 2018, with the #metoo movement in full swing, it's harder to laugh at a statement like that. Mainly because one, it's demonstrably false. There's more tr00 female heshers than at any time I've ever been able to recall. And two, publicly laughing at that statement in 2018 means you're possibly taking a side in the cultural shitshow between cock-hating Third Wave Feminists and the human toilets that comprise the online communities of Mens Rights Activists, Incels, and Alt-Right cum stains to whom disparaging women isn't a laughing matter but a very real vocation in between their sessions of playing Call of Duty, eating Hot Pockets, and generally avoiding the sun.  

There really isn't a sadder more pathetic community on the internet than the Incels.
But as women in metal become more commonplace, periodically we see articles on the various blogs and forums on the topic of "female fronted" bands. Recently long terrible and thankfully long inactive nu-metal band Kittie opined that they shouldn't be thought of as a female fronted band. Quite ironic, given that when their record label first presented this Canadian embarrassment to music to an undeserving world, pretty much all of their hype centered around their gender and age. It was widely speculated shortly after their debut that at least some of the "musicians" in the band were even so inept that they couldn't competently tune their own instruments.

All these members. Yet so little interesting music.

It is a fair point, nevertheless. Should it really matter what the identities of a band's members happen to be? It seems like "female fronted" is a poor label to use to distinguish bands based on their sound. Arch Enemy, a band guilty of blatantly using an attractive female vocalist to gather attention in an otherwise over-saturated melodic deathmetal genre, sounds pretty goddamned different from Nightwish, purveyors of frilly froo foo symphonic powermetalish horseshit. My strong opinions about these artists notwithstanding, the only common denominator between artists in this manufactured "genre" is that the bands feature females as vocalists. It is pretty shitty to therefore isolate bands featuring female membership and to judge them not as bands on equal footing with the rest of the genre but only in comparison to other bands featuring prominent women. 

This is marketing, not creative brilliance.

Metal should be exclusionary. It's an outsider genre of music and a subculture for people that feel like outsiders. That said, I don't see why that label only fits white heterosexual men like myself. In fact, if any group of people in western society based on gender and ethnic identity are insiders, it's people like me. I see no reason why people with vaginas, or people of color, or people with various sexual, gender, ethnic, religious, or even political identities cannot identify with the alienation of feeling like an "outsider" and feel drawn to this type of music. 

Metal is not a goddamned pie. Just because more people decided they want to try it doesn't mean you get to have less.
At the same time, if a band wants to be judged on its merits and not the identity of its members, then that band needs to present itself that way. Kittie chose to market themselves as angry teenage girls and when they became thirty somethings and weren't getting respect as serious musicians outside of a dwindling fanbase, that's when they said "stop calling us a girl band." When Butcher Babies two front women put their tits all over everything and say "we're selling serious music", that's basically bullshit. There's nothing wrong with tits or pushing sexuality, but using sex appeal to get attention to sell shitty music doesn't make the music better. I've got no problem with someone being comfortable enough to push themselves that way, but you can't really complain that no one buys you as a musician when you're selling sex rather than music. (Though in the case of Butcher Babies, that's probably a smarter financial move.)

They could be selling basically anything here.
There's plenty of women involved in metal bands that are producing great music. Nervosa's entire lineup is female, and Haemhorrage, Eluveitie, Electric Wizard, Bolt Thrower, Abnormality, and My Dying Bride come to mind right off the top of my head as bands with female contributors. I don't think it matters if you've got a cock n' balls or a vag; if you're making good music then you're making good music. It's really not much more complicated than that.

An honest to goatlord decent solid thrash band.

In short, a woman's place is wherever she wants it to be. That includes within the metal scene. And women shouldn't have to leave their femininity at the entrance to the hall, either. But if women in metal bands use their gender to distinguish themselves from other bands in the genre, then it's hypocritical to then wonder why their bands aren't evaluated the same way as other bands. If you want to be accepted and fit in, then fit in.