Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Top 10 of 2014

I can actually say this was the first year in several where I felt like I'm leaving off a bunch of good releases from my list. 2014 has been one of the stronger years in metal in some time; probably since 2001. Since I haven't updated this as often as in the past years (I have some ideas I might write about while I've got a break between now when grad school starts up again in a few weeks) I'll be covering a bit of ground here.

Biggest Disappointment of 2014:

At The Gates At War With Reality

I think At The Gates was always overrated; yes Slaughter of the Soul is one of the landmark albums of metal history, and everything about it sounds just as vital today as it did in 1996. The problem is the rest of their discography; the only other thing ATG did that I'd consistently reach for to listen to is the Terminal Spirit Disease EP. There's moments of brilliance on their other releases, but also stuff that just bored me and failed to really capture my attention. Sorry, it's the truth. If you're telling me you reach for The Red In The Sky Is Ours on a consistent basis, you're probably lying. There's just too much better stuff out there.

At War With Reality doesn't suffer from songwriting, or technical proficiency, or inspiration. I'm certain these songs sounded great in the rehearsal space, and it could have been a worthy follow up to (if not quite as good as) Slaughter of the Soul. The problem here is that the production on this album is so incredibly wrong, wrong WRONG. It's too pristine and pretty, to the point that these songs lack the urgency and venom that made Slaughter of the Soul so compelling. It's the same goddamned problem that The Haunted had when Peter Dolving rejoined the band for rEvolver. If this album has the production of Slaughter of the Soul or Terminal Spirit Disease even, it's a top 5 album for me. Instead, it's just...there. Listen and tell me this doesn't scream for a more...human production?

Honorable mentions of 2014:

Benevolent The Covenant
Black Anvil Hail Death 
Bolzer Soma
Cannibal Corpse A Skeletal Domain
Decimation Reign of Ungodly Creation
Devangelic Resurrection Denied
Digging Up Disseminated Inapparent Infection 
Jig-Ai Rising Sun Carnage
Misery Index The Killing Gods
Ne Obliviscarius Citadel 
November's Doom Bled White
Septycal Gorge Scourge of the Formless Breed
Sinister The Post Apocalyptic Servant
Woccon Solace in Decay

...and probably a bunch more that have slipped my memory at the moment. 2014 was a GOOD year.

Top 10:

10.) Solstafir Otta

Post metal? I actually missed their performance at MDF in 2014 because of traffic, but I understood that they made quite an impression. The thing with this style is that it can either be majestic and compelling, where bands create moods and keep your attention with subtle hooks while building to epic peaks, or it's just a snooze-fest. Unlike a lot of artists who try this sorta thing but bore me to tears (recent Anathema, Sigur Ros), Otta is a dreary, somber, yet engaging listen. The reason it's only 10th on my list is more to do with my personal tastes than its quality, but this has replaced Pelican and Red Sparrowes as my go-to when I'm in the mood for this style.

9.) Insomnium Shadows of the Sun

When you have a good formula, stick with it. Too many people belly ache and cry about bands needing to take gigantic leaps and stylistic shifts with each album. You know what happens when bands do that, and deviate from what they're best at? They release shit. Insomnium has a clear, confident identity about who and what they are, which is a doom inspired melodic death metal band that draws more from Metallica and Sentenced than Iron Maiden (which explains why they sound distinct from say, Children of Bodom and that yuck.)  There isn't a single surprise to be found on this album, just well crafted highly memorable songs that I found myself listening to an awful lot. 

8.) Vallenfyre Splinters

Greg McIntosh is pretty good at this death metal thing. A bit doomier than A Fragile King was, but it still retains that crusty grind vibe too. And those haunting guitar melodies! This was meant to be played at maximum volume to scare the neighbors.

7.) Hideous Divinity Cobra Verde

What happened in Italy? Used to be Italy only produced frilly froo froo power metal crap, but the last couple years have seen the proliferation of really intense, strong brutal death metal bands. Hideous Divinity took a leap forward from the other outstanding Italian bands with Cobra Verde in 2014, with their Nile-influenced tech death. This is FAST, but still has some brutal grooves and isn't just an exercise in fretboard masturbation. 

6.) Soen Tellurian

This is the album Opeth should have released the last 2 times around. Imagine a combination of Tool, Opeth, and Katatonia performed by top notch musicians who also knew how to write great songs. You'd get Tellurian. It's nerd metal that you don't have to be a nerd to appreciate. 

5.) Dead Congregation Promogulation of the Fall

The best "new" death metal band to come out in the last few years. Nothing new here from their previous efforts; it's dark, dank, and full of inhumanly low vocals and moody guitars. A soundtrack to hell.

4.) Voices London

Some of the Akercocke guys managed to step foot from underneath the rock they had been hiding under, and we're rewarded with London, every bit as ambitious as Akercocke was on those amazing later releases. A disorienting story about a man's descent towards suicide, this is uncomfortable at times, as dischordant riffing leads to furious black metal blasts which again delves into oddly melancholy. Not really a banger, per se, as you'll finish this kinda feeling like "what the hell did I just listen to?" but one hell of a ride. 

3.) Pallbearer Foundations of Burden

Most of the best-of lists I'm reading have this at number one, and I think in an ordinary year it probably is. This is epic, monumental doom of the highest quality. The vocals reek of despair, those riffs plod and crush, there's even a ting of classic rock sensibility in some of the guitar harmonies. Pallbearer in the course of 2 albums has reached "doom metal elite status." That's not hyperbole.

2.) Triptykon Melana Chasmata 

Another album that in most years is a clear number one. This feels like the fully realized, matured vision of Celtic Frost that all of those years of experimentation was striving for. That guitar tone is still absolutely massive and crushing and while there are moments of fury, the strength of this album is in the down tempo, ominous doom. Tom Fischer's croon paired with that haunting female voice on "Boleskin House" creates an unsettling vibe; this album is a tortured vision by a miserable man. 

1.) Behemoth The Satanist

As soon as I heard this album, it immediately struck me as the most vital, important album to be released in metal since Opeth's Blackwater Park in 2001. So much of this album is based on the mythology cultivated by Nergal's battles with Polish legal authorities as well as a life threatening ordeal versus leukemia and how, faced with death and imprisonment, he remained completely unapologetic in his personal ideology. Overcoming all of that, he then writes Behemoth's most ambitious album; moving away from their take on Polish death metal to create an epic, defiant statement drawing not just on his personal philosophy and resilience, but reaching across a variety of genres for influences; there's elements of Killing Joke, classic rock, their earlier black metal days, choirs and chants...yet through all of this the band remains familiar. This is still ugly, extreme metal full of blastbeats and ugly vocals that is hardly commercial in any sense; it's just that this time Behemoth managed to delve across the many subgenres of metal and beyond to craft their magnum opus.

The last time a band returned from a long break to this much hype was Dissection, who returned to play shitty melodeath before Jon Nodtveidt did the world a favor and killed himself. Unlike Dissection, not only did Behemoth live up to the hype, they surpassed it, creating what will probably be the album of this decade. 


Thursday, August 14, 2014

My case against Babymetal.

So the most "controversial" metal band in 2014 is a trio of young Japanese teenagers who sing J-pop.

Oh wait, not this.

I meant this. This is Babymetal.


By now I'm assuming everyone reading this has heard Babymetal, which as much as I can tell is the brainchild of a pop music producer ("Kobametal", according to wikipedia ) who thought he was creating a new subgenre of metal by combining "cute Japanese girls" with angry metal music. The result being Babymetal, and their musical product is unfortunately less original than I think he intended.

Add some J-pop vocals and guitars, and you basically have the themes from Street Fighter 2.

By now it's probably obvious that I am not a fan, and even if Jeff Walker and Bill Steer from Carcass give Babymetal their blessing, that doesn't mean I have to embrace it. However, my disapproval of the band doesn't necessarily come from a metal purist perspective, at least not entirely.

I do confess to disliking the fact that the girls hadn't even heard metal music before being recruited to this band. This particular circumstance doesn't jibe with my idea of what metal is, which to say an authentic form of musical expression by angry, ugly people for angry, ugly people. I appreciate the desire to cross boundaries and redefine what metal can be, but it just seems that every time a band reaches for something commercial (even if it means "commercial in Japan") or "happy" sounding, I feel like it utterly sucks. Babymetal is no exception.

This isn't to say that I'm completely opposed to schtick or gimmicks in metal. Immortal is a freaking meme. King Diamond has been doing the facepaint thing since Mercyful Fate. Ghost, who was the most debated band prior to Babymetal, certainly has gotten mileage out of their quasi-religious imagery and hidden identities. 

Because Immortal never gets old. Just kvlt. And grym. And tr00.

Perhaps Ghost is a great point of comparison. Yes, Ghost is heavy on image, and their music is often derivative of  Deep Purple, Mercyful Fate, and metal of the late 70's. But ultimately, Ghost has also written memorable songs like "Ritual" and "Year Zero". And the whole "Satan" thing, while tongue in cheek, is definitely not commercial in the sense that "Gimme Chocolate" is (because who gets offended by teenagers who want chocolate?)

Nothing sells records like this guy!

Not to mention every song sounds like "Gimme Chocolate". Do you really want to hear this over and over again? It stops being ironic or funny after the second time.

I think that's the biggest problem I have, actually. It's not that they are a gimmick, or that they perform a style of music that I'm not particularly into. It's that everything is the gimmick, and beneath the gimmick there is nothing of substance. Yeah, it's got a slick production, impeccable musicianship by the hired guns, and the girls are choreographed, but do you remember any of their songs the moment they're done? Are we even talking about this band this time next year?

My guess is no. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Dammit MDF!

"VIP/Backstage tickets for the Edison stages: 

Every year, people ask if we will have something like this available, but we never have until now. A limited amount of 50 weekend (Fri-Sun) VIP/backstage tickets valid ONLY for the 3 stages at the Edison Lot will be available on our website tomorrow, February 26th at 2 PM (EST). This is a separate ticket that is needed in addition to general admission tickets for the Edison Lot. When you receive your VIP wristband at the entrance when you arrive, you will also be given vouchers that can be redeemed for 3 free drinks and a MDF T-shirt in the design and size of your choice."

 With this announcement, the Maryland Deathfest has officially “jumped the shark.” 

I trust that y'all understand the reference.

I don’t make this, or other criticisms regarding aspects of the festival, with the intent of being an overly negative keyboard warrior or backseat driver who somehow thinks he could do it a million times better. I certainly have ideas that I think would improve the festival but I can’t say that the organizers haven’t also considered the same ideas, weighed pros and cons, and determined them to be less than feasible. They invented the thing, so that’s sort of their right. 

But I am someone who has been to at least a few days of every edition of what’s America’s biggest metal festival; corporate rock touring fests like the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Fest notwithstanding. I’ve seen the event grow from its origins at the Thunderdome through the House of Rock in White Flint to its time at Sonar in downtown Baltimore. It’s always been a good time despite occasional miscues such as when Pestilence couldn’t make it (extra Bolt Thrower appearance that year!), Dismember getting cut off early by city curfew, the pepper spray incident, and I managed to even survive last year’s issues with the frightening security hired to basically beat and rob the festival attendees.

Just a typical experience for concert goers on Day 3 of the Maryland Deathfest.

Accordingly, as someone who could be considered a repeat customer, I think I do have a right to voice my complaints and concerns on a public forum if I so chose, and this happens to be my forum and this is where I draw my line. First of all, I can’t fucking stand the whole VIP tickets thing that has swept across the scene in recent years. I get that record sales are down and bands have to make up revenue in order to keep functioning as a touring act, but it seems grossly anathema to everything the underground metal scene is supposed to be to offer “VIP tickets.” It creates a class distinction between fans based on their ability/willingness to pay extra for spending 15 disinterested minutes with and getting an autograph from a particular band; something that historically has always been as simple as waiting by the bus after the show or going over to the merch table and chatting up a member of the band while buying a t shirt or CD. I don’t see why underground metal musicians are supposed to be treated like fucking rockstars as though they’re Aerosmith or the Rolling Stones or some fucking shit. These dudes shop at the same stores we as fans do and they work in the same shitty fucking jabroni jobs that we do; the only difference is that they happen to play instruments and create music that we’re willing to pay to hear.

Fostering and creating these kinds of distinctions makes the underground metal scene no better than any other music scene. When I think back on all of the cool experiences I had growing up literally just bumping into dudes who play in some of my favorite bands, I think it’s a tragedy that we’re turning those experiences into a commodity that can be bought and sold. As M told me, “VIP ain’t metal.” 

No, seriously.  VIP ain't metal.

My other fault with this goes more specifically to the organizers of MDF themselves. They have very consciously attempted to make the festival bigger over the last few years; fucking Carcass and Down played last year. I actually think that it was cool to get to see those bands, so I’m not complaining about that. Yet at the same time it’s become a logistical clusterfuck of multiple venues, unprofessional security,and tent stages. The inability to manage the moving parts resulted in last year’s final headliner, Venom, having their set cut short and a near riot breaking out as result. All the while the organizers were more interested in playing damage control on Facebook and online media than actually…managing the operation!

Ticket prices have also crept up aggressively each year; I understand that 2014’s edition of the festival would never be as affordable at 2003; when a 3 day pass to see almost exclusively American death metal bands cost me $40 bucks. Still, to attend every venue this year where bands are playing costs $255 bucks per attendee; since those passes sold out obviously the market is willing to bear that cost. Even for three days at the main stages (which are in an outdoor parking lot that’s a 15 minute walk away from the other venues, wtf?) the bill is $160 per fan for Friday-Sunday. The math for M and I= $320 bucks before parking, food, etc. Even with higher profile bands, that’s way beyond any rate of inflation.  I might have the means to pay, but that's merch I'm not buying, beer I'm not drinking, and other shows in 2014 I won't be attending as a result.  And that fucking sucks.

Now tack on the idea that for an additional $100 bucks per fan, you basically get to go backstage at the main venue (where I imagine therewill be a “lounge” tent or area for the bands), 3 free tickets for watered down macrobrews in a plastic cup, and a t shirt. Even the most appealing aspect of this, access to a clean bathroom, is bogus: this is a parking lot and your bathroom is probably a porta-potty.  But you get to sport a “VIP wristband” and act like you’re better than other fans. It’s both a bad deal AND fosters the bullshit rockstar/diva attitude that I say has no goddamned place in the scene. 

Typical Metal Divas being all VIP-like.

My guess is that the real reason that the organizers are doing this is because in booking so many high profile foreign bands with high dollar up-front guarantees for coming to the festival (I’m sure My Dying Bride and At The Gates don’t perform for cheap) that they need to actually raise more revenue in order to break even. Which brings me to the idea that best thing about MDF isn’t necessarily that huge (in the underground) international bands play but that it’s a 3 (or 4) day weekend of celebrating beer, metal, and meeting decent people who are fellow fans. My opinion here (forgive me for being a backseat driver), but maybe they should avoid booking so many international bands that cost too damn much money. For example, you can probably book Brutality from Florida for a lot less money than Cancer from England (not to mention, Brutality is a better band and actually released something new not too long ago!) And does there really need to be what's basically a second festival for grindcore and hardcore bands happening at another venue?  Maybe there's too much of a "good thing" here....

I’ll still end up going to this year’s festival because I dunno when I’ll have a chance to see My Dying Bride, At The Gates, or Unleashed any other time in the near or distant future. But looking at the direction the organizers want to take things, I unfortunately imagine that the Maryland Deathfest is going to implode in the next few years; destined to fall by the wayside just as the Milwaukee Metalfest before it.

Promoting the 2016 edition of the Maryland Deathfest?