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Ground and Sky » Metal
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I’m a bit ashamed to admit that this year’s Maryland Deathfest lineup is largely Greek to me, consisting of tons of bands I’ve never heard (and many I’ve never heard of). Last year, I knew a much higher percentage of the MDF lineup, and even so got totally overwhelmed by all the unfamiliar music. So this year I’ve decided to go through the entire lineup and at least listen to a little bit from each band, to get a sense for what bands I’m going to want to pay attention to this year. Here are my listening notes for the first few.
Note: regarding the bands that are new to me, these are all very much snap reactions and I’m sure I’ll change my mind on a lot of these with more familiarity and/or after MDF VIII. So, take it all with a grain of salt.
Gorguts: The main band I’m excited to see at MDF this year. No research needed. Obscura is one of my favorite metal albums of all time.
Possessed: Released one classic album in 1985, Seven Churches, considered one of the founding pillars of the entire death metal genre. Just listened to a few tracks and I’m not a huge fan; it all sounds very “proto” to me, an album that was undoubtedly groundbreaking at the time but has since been surpassed a thousand times over. I’ll probably dig their set but I’m not feeling like it’s mandatory for me.
D.R.I.: Now this is an interesting choice. D.R.I. is far more hardcore than metal, though they’re generally considered crossover thrash. I don’t really like the vocal style, but there are tons of juicy, head-nodding riffs throughout their music and this is definitely crowd-pleasing stuff. It’ll be interesting to see if it’s crowd-pleasing when the crowd is a bunch of death metal fans instead of punk kids.
Watain: No research needed. I like these guys’ take on black metal well enough, although the show I saw them play in 2008 left me with much more of an olfactory impression than an aural one.
Coffins: BOOM. Nasty, doomy Japanese death metal that feels like a solid punch to the gut. They’ve got an unnaturally guttural vocalist and one hell of a thick, sludgy guitar tone. It’s like if Devourment actually wrote interesting compositions instead of nonstop slams. I’m going to love these guys, I think.
Nazxul: Hey, look! Epic, symphonic black metal. For whatever reason, I always need a lot of time to properly digest black metal, moreso than any other kind of metal. At first listen though, this stuff sounds pretty damn good to me. This is another band that released one highly-acclaimed album in the mid-90s, and then a recent reunion album. The new one seems to be getting tons of acclaim too, so it looks like these guys will be in fine form. The keyboards should offer a nice break from all the guitar-centric bands at the fest.
Trap Them: Saw and heard them at last year’s MDF. They seemed like largely unremarkable deathgrind. Listening to their recordings now, they’re definitely better than I gave them credit for, but there’s not a whole lot to set them apart in a festival with 50+ similar bands. Not going to be a priority for me.
Gride: Not much death metal here, this is pure chaotic grindcore. I dig it. Not as hyper-aggressive as some of the current grind leaders, but it’s speedy, unpredictable and intense as fuck, just the way grindcore should be.
Birds of Prey: At first, upon hearing this band’s straightforward, sludgy hard-rock take on death metal, I fully expected to totally hate it. But something happened: I started unconsciously nodding my head, and got swept up by a ridiculous abundance of catchy riffing. To make an obscure reference, this sounds to me like a hookier yet heavier version of DC locals King Giant. There is absolutely nothing complicated or innovative about this stuff, but it’s for exactly that reason that their live show will probably be awesome.
I closed 2009 with a whimper rather than a bang, not going to a single show in the last six weeks of the year. So it was nice to get back into it with a pair of shows here in DC early in 2010. Last Friday, I saw Massachusetts-based post-rockers Caspian at an amazingly packed The Red & the Black; last night, I saw a great metal double-bill of Jucifer and Salome at the Black Cat backstage.
The glib way to describe Caspian is “Explosions in the Sky but heavier and not as good.” They play a melodic, accessible, largely predictable brand of instrumental post-rock that does the soft-loud-soft thing religiously. One of the things that sets them apart is that their loud parts are really loud - and not just really loud, but quite heavy as well, with some good ol’ chunky riffage that appeals to the metal fan in me. Their live show had some pretty great, cathartic moments, but it didn’t take long before it kind of all started sounding the same, which I suppose is the major pitfall for most post-rock bands. Even the really great ones don’t always manage to avoid it (see: Mogwai, etc etc). Still, a fun show, and the last song ended with a huge percussion breakdown that was pretty cool.
One thing of note: Caspian’s drummer used a bare-bones kit of snare drum, bass drum, hi-hat and two cymbals. No toms to be found. To be honest, I missed the toms a bit. The band’s music doesn’t really demand much from their drummer, but a bit more variety in his sound might have helped keep the show from getting samey as quickly as it did.
As for last night, Jucifer and Salome were a real treat. I’ve seen both these bands multiple times at this point and really enjoy both of their live shows. They’re a perfect bill together: Jucifer completely eschews their poppy album material in favor of a pure wall of sound, while Salome plays (to steal words from a coworker and fellow metalhead) “doom with fifteen Os” - monstrously slow, sludgy, riff-centric metal, with a seriously ferocious vocalist. Neither disappointed at this show; although I think I enjoyed Jucifer’s last show in the area (at Baltimore’s Ottobar) a bit more than this one, I couldn’t really pinpoint why. Maybe because at the Ottobar show, I was able to pick out a few familiar riffs here and there and could actually tell what album material they were playing, albeit transformed into near unrecognizability - this time around, it was all completely unrecognizable to me.
Turnout at this show was great too. I’d guess 30-40 for both bands, which is great considering the last two times I saw Jucifer there were probably 20 people combined. The fact that folks came early to see Salome was awesome. People seemed into it, too, although with DC crowds it’s sometimes hard to tell. To be fair, this isn’t exactly mosh-pit music. Although it’d be fun to see a Salome mosh-pit. Slowest wall of death ever!
Anyway, I also just had a nice experience at this show talking with folks, which is something I often don’t get to do at metal shows. Enjoyed shooting the shit about why I don’t like current-day Mastodon, getting all prog-nerdy about the likes of Opeth, Symphony X, “Starless” and more, hearing Salome tour stories, etc etc, with various friends and band members. Definitely a great way to start a year in concerts.
Photos from the Jucifer/Salome show coming to a Washington City Paper Arts Desk post soon.
It’s always difficult to pinpoint things like this, but “Slit Your Guts” (listen below) might be the one single song that really got me into death metal. I found None So Vile at Borders while on a family trip to Phoenix. I can’t recall why I bought it; it wasn’t on sale — my spreadsheet says I paid $15.99 for it — but I must have read some flattering comments about it in one of the infrequent metal threads on rmp or ProgressiveEars.
My only previous extreme metal experience was mostly driven by Opeth circa Still Life, so I was completely unprepared for the ferocity of the Cryptopsy record when I popped it into my Discman (yes, I’m dating myself here; this was in December 2002). My first reaction was to laugh out loud. Unlike most extreme metal albums, None So Vile comes with liner notes that actually include lyrics. I wasn’t necessarily expecting to understand the vocals, but I was probably imagining something along the lines of Mikael Akerfeldt’s growl; while guttural, Akerfeldt is clearly signing words. Cryptopsy’s Lord Worm does no such thing. He just pretty much grunts rhythmically, and I thought it was hilarious (plus, the guy calls himself “Lord Worm”). I was also bewildered: when are the real vocals going to come in?
By the time “Slit Your Guts,” the second song on the album, came on, I realized that Lord Worm’s grunts were the real vocals, and I was too transfixed by Flo Mournier’s light-speed drumming to care. “That’s gotta be a drum machine,” I remember thinking. “Hell, that’s probably two drum machines.” After only hearing midtempo, melodic psuedo-death metal to that point in my life, the speed, brutality and precision of this stuff was completely blowing my mind.
It took a few listens before I was able to adjust to the rapid-fire pace of the record and really parse what was going on. “Slit Your Guts” was the first track that I really understood. The main riff is played insanely fast using a razor-sharp, almost thin guitar tone, an intriguing contrast to Lord Worm’s massively deep and relatively midtempo vocal lines. Around the one-minute mark, Lord Worm takes a breather and, impossibly, we get a pair of guitar solos that are even faster than the main riff. The first lasts all of eight seconds; the second lasts five. Despite — or perhaps because of — their brevity, they ratchet up the intensity of the song to a whole new level.
These solos are followed by what I’m tempted to call the first breakdown in the history of metal music, although I don’t know my metal/hardcore history well enough to get the timeline right. After another couple vocal sections, there’s another solo around the three-minute mark, this one an epic length of 25 seconds while still being faster than the main riff. Then there’s another proto-breakdown: fifteen seconds of headbanging heaven, before the main riff kicks back in to close out the song with a bang.
At no point in this entire song is there a break in intensity; if anything, the various transitions to solos, bridges, and breakdowns consistently increase the ferocity rather than the other way around. None So Vile is a great album, but “Slit Your Guts” is clearly the gem. I put this song on a mix CD full of modern grindcore songs, and to my surprise and pleasure, it more than held its own in terms of complexity and sheer fist-pumping awesomeness. Just as Gorguts‘ Obscura remains a pinnacle in complex metal even 14 years later, Cryptopsy’s effort from the same year can still take on all comers and come out on top in terms of sheer inventiveness, technicality and brutality.
Cosmo Lee consistently has the best soundbites of any music writer out there these days, or at least it seems like it to me, because I keep linking to him. Today in Invisible Oranges, he throws out a review of Epica’s new record (which he’s only reviewing because he basically wrote a post saying “Please don’t make me review the new Epica record,” and so of course everyone asked him to review the new Epica record).
The whole brief review is worth a read but the meat is right here: “But everything is loud and dramatic, which means that nothing is loud and dramatic. I call this ‘Carmina Burana metal.’ It’s like if Dethklok weren’t a joke.”
And yet I still like this stuff. Which, I suppose, would make it pretty hard for me to get all soapboxy about, say, neo-prog, if I were still into doing that kind of thing.
Well, concert reviews are no longer something I’m doing for the Washington City Paper (just concert photos), and that actually works out nicely because it means I can write about concerts that inspire me right here at this blog, like I used to. The latest in a long list of enjoyable concerts I’ve seen in 2009 was Shrinebuilder last Friday night at Sonar in Baltimore.
I dig the Shrinebuilder record, although predictably I like the parts that sound like Om and Neurosis the best. Lots of folks have been saying that it’s exactly the sum of its parts, and I basically agree. That said, the song “Pyramid of the Moon” is absolutely incredible and in its case at least, I enjoy the parts so much that the sum of them is pretty immense. It goes from sounding like Neurosis into an intense Om-like mantra part into Wino’s juicy psychedelic lead guitar back to sounding like Om but more fleshed out. This is a recipe for awesomeness. Still, yes, the record as a whole is good, but not quite great. (Say a strong 10 on the Gnosis scale.)
Live is a different story. They were fantastic. They played like a real band, not a cobbled-together supergroup. The best tracks from the album were better live; I particularly liked seeing/hearing Wino and Scott Kelly trade off on vocals. Their vocal styles are so incredibly different, but they fit together perfectly in the live setting (whereas on the record I found Wino’s vocals a tad bit annoying). Their guitar styles are also incredibly different, and seeing them live gave me new perspective to how their guitar lines fit together in the compositions. Getting to see and hear Al Cisneros do his thing in a full-band setting rather than the stripped-down context of Om was a real treat, too. His first “aaaaaaaahhhhh” vocal drone in “Pyramid of the Moon” was as powerful as any moment I’ve seen with Om. And Dale Crover on drums? Sick. Of the four members’ “main” bands, Shrinebuilder sounds the least like Melvins, but Crover definitely puts his personal stamp on the music nonetheless.
In my list of new stuff that will probably rock, I completely whiffed on one huge release, now out, that I am going to grab ASAP: Shrinebuilder. This is about as super as a supergroup gets, for doom metal fans, with members of bands like St. Vitus, The Melvins, Neurosis and Sleep. I don’t even count myself as a huge doom metal fan, but from hearing the one track that’s up on the group’s Myspace page, I think I’m going to really like this.
I have some photos posted over at the Washington City Paper, where I’ve continued to contribute regularly, but don’t expect much other than fog, silhouettes, and red light.
Today the Baltimore City Paper posted a review of the show by Bret McCabe that’s pretty over-written (”It’s still metal about metal, though, bringing death to false metal through deconstructionist meta”) but also pretty hilarious, and pretty much says what I would have said about the show in far fewer words (and far fewer laughs).
This weekend Faust is in town for the Sonic Circuits festival, and I’m missing it because I’m going out of town. (I’m also missing Mono, Tim Hecker, Jandek, Evan Parker & Ned Rothenberg, Janel & Anthony and more. Ouch.) But, in a couple weeks I’ll get to see Anti-Pop Consortium, whom I never thought would reunite, much less tour, and that pretty much makes up for a lot.
I’ve been AWOL for a while because I’ve been dealing with my own personal version of swine flu. Worse than any flu I can remember having, but not THE swine flu. Anyway, I’m more or less back, my head has recovered to the point that listening to music no longer makes me want to plug my ears while grimacing in agony, and I’ll be posting again.
Tomorrow I go see Mastodon, Kylesa and Intronaut. Really I’m most interested in Kylesa. The more I listen to the new Mastodon the more I sigh in sadness at how they’ve changed. Cosmo Lee pretty much sums up my feelings: “After only a minute, I was violently allergic. That singing - ouch. I felt as if an old friend had showed up in a shiny new Hummer. Something had changed irreparably.”
Well, not really, but I’m going to talk about both of them in one blog post, and that’s probably as close as they should ever get to each other. Mostly I just read two excellent pieces of music journalism and wanted to share excerpts.
In this New Yorker piece on Lady Gaga, the pop singer who, as the article points out, breaks the norm by being influenced more by European techno than American hip-hop:
Call it The Question of Endurance. You and your friends are talking about music, and the conversation turns to a popular band. You express support. A friend voices her opinion, maybe as favorable as yours, but appends a qualifier: “I like them, but will they be around in ten years?” You may feel compelled to defend whomever it is you’re talking about, covering the present moment and the future with your positive take. After trying this approach, though, you realize that pop music has no Constitution and doesn’t operate like a de-facto Supreme Court: precedent is not always established, and isn’t even necessary. Pop rarely accretes in a tidy, serial manner—it zigs, zags, eats itself, and falls over its shoelaces.
Even better is Cosmo Lee’s Pitchfork review of Agorapocalypse. This dude also writes for Decibel and runs the excellent Invisible Oranges blog, so he knows his metal. That said, I disagree with his review here, but it’s still a great piece of writing.
As plastic percussion flailed away below thrash and death metal riffs, the various vocalists of Agoraphobic Nosebleed extolled drugs, guns, and fucking. It was the sound of civilization’s decline, sold at Toys “R” Us with hazardous metal parts… This aesthetic culminated in 2003’s Altered States of America, which crammed 100 songs into 20 minutes. It was not an album so much as a temper tantrum.
He concludes that “Agorapocalypse is disappointingly listenable,” a sentiment I understand. I just think he’s off base.
Last week I went up to Baltimore to photograph the Music as a Weapon IV tour. This is a tour headlined by hard-rock/metal band Disturbed, whom I don’t particularly have much interest in, but the three opening bands had varying levels of appeal for me - Killswitch Engage, Lacuna Coil and Chimaira. Of these I’m most familiar with Lacuna Coil; I like Comalies, am largely indifferent to Karmacode, and haven’t but would like to hear their earlier material. Mostly I think Cristina Scabbia has a very strong voice.
I got the opportunity to interview Scabbia before the show (thanks Shum @ Riot Rock Management). The results are here at Black Plastic Bag. I haven’t done any interviews for quite some time (you can see some really old ones here), but Scabbia was pretty much the easiest subject ever: friendly, talkative, and generous with her time. I was originally told that I would have ten minutes with her after some other publicity event and before a 6pm meet and greet. I guess the meet and greet didn’t happen, because when I told her I wasn’t sure how much time we had left, she shrugged and said, “it doesn’t matter.” I ended up running out of things to ask after half an hour. In fact, the full interview transcript is kind of choppy because I planned my questions around having 10 minutes, and when I ended up having 20 more than I expected, I had to jump around asking different things as they came to mind. Oh well.
Anyway, there’s nothing there for anyone not interested in Lacuna Coil, but I’ve written about plenty of female-fronted metal on this site so some of you will probably get something out of it. Enjoy.