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.
When I first met Mike Portnoy, I felt like we were cut from the same cloth, a brother from another mother. We could talk rock & roll for eons (we probably will on tour, hell yeah!). Being added to the PROGRESSIVE NATION tour feels like the planets have aligned for us and the elves have finally come home to Rivendell.
Haha. Did he really say that? Gee, guess who the proggy-prog band on this tour is?
Actually, this lineup isn’t bad… Dream Theater, Opeth and Unexpect round things out. It’s a lot more along the lines of last year’s Progressive Nation lineup (replace Between the Buried and Me with Unexpect and Three with Bigelf) than this year’s U.S. tour, which I’m pretty unexcited about. Unexpect always puts on an awesomely spastic show - I saw them three times last year and they just kept getting more entertaining.
Understandably, this whole Progressive Nation thing is a big deal in prog-rock (or at least prog-metal) land. At one point I think there were four separate threads going on about this tour over at ProgressiveEars, and who knows how much activity there’s been on Mike Portnoy’s forum, the Opeth forum, or the various relevant Yahoo! groups. The tour made its stop in Washington, DC on Monday night, and I went to see what the hubbub’s all about, camera in hand (all photos are at Flickr).
Of the four bands participating — Dream Theater, Opeth, Between the Buried and Me and 3 — I’ve seen the first two (2-3 times each, I can’t remember anymore), am a big fan of the third’s new album Colors, and am totally unfamiliar with the last. Overall I was most excited to see BTBAM; I haven’t been a Dream Theater fan for a long time now, and once I started getting into the more extreme end of extreme metal, Opeth started seeming a little less interesting to me as well (though I still quite enjoy their stuff when I get the hankering to give it a spin).
In any case, I showed up at the venue, DAR Constitution Hall (a 3,700 seat theater), a little before 7pm. I’ve never photographed a show at DAR before, so I spent a few minutes wandering around figuring out what to do. I picked up my photo pass and then got conflicting instructions from staff about where to go from there. I ended up going through some backstage door and getting led to the stage area by a friendly member of BTBAM (I was too distracted by wondering where the hell I was going to engage him in much conversation, but did find out that he’s one of the members from my hometown, Winston-Salem). He actually led me to the stage itself — and I found myself at the very back of the stage just as 3 were beginning their set. Uh, not exactly what I had planned, but ok. I made my way around the wings and got down to the audience area where I was supposed to be. DAR has no photo pit, but I was told I could shoot from the aisles, and found out later (during Opeth’s set) that I could also shoot from the front row of seats right up against the stage, which were unoccupied.
For more on the photography end of this show, check out my photography blog. Now that we’ve gotten to the point in the story that I’m in the venue, what about the music? I was mildly interested in 3, mostly because people have been absolutely raving about their opening set for this tour. In the past I never read anything about their music that made me think I would particularly like them. Unfortunately, I’m still not sure whether I particularly like them, as their music made almost no impression on me. Most of that is my own fault; I was paying attention to getting my bearings in the venue instead of listening. So, put that one down as an incomplete with apologies from the grader. Circumstances were only slightly better for BTBAM as I had to spend the first half of their 30-minute set working out a pass issue, but I did get to see them do “Viridian” and “White Walls” and they fucking blew my head off. Colors was an album that I thought was just ok at first but has really grown on me, and in the live setting these guys pulled it all off with aplomb: the quick shifts in mood, the tricky time changes, the range of styles from Floydlike shoegazing to death metal volume and intensity. The bass solo in “Viridian” raised the tension just enough for them to bring the house down with “White Walls.” The crowd seemed fairly responsive, but then again I was in the front, where folks were bound to be most engaged.
After BTBAM I figured I’d seen my highlight of the show already, and I was more or less right. Opeth put on a solid set — interestingly, thanks to the compressed time limits (they only had an hour to play), they opened with “Demon at the Fall,” which was actually a little disconcerting to me. I kept expecting them to walk off the stage at the end of the song, since that’s what they usually do. They played a range of stuff from their career, including one of the snoozers from Damnation and a song from the forthcoming album Watershed. I don’t really do the illegal downloading thing, so I haven’t heard the leaked version of Watershed that’s been making the rounds for a few months, but I liked the new song (”Heir Apparent,” I think) with reservations. There were some awesome riffs but it probably could have been cut shorter by a couple minutes (really I could say this about a lot of Opeth songs, so that’s nothing new).
Otherwise, it was Opeth and not a lot more needs to be said. Lots of slow sections that burst into killer riffs and death-metal growls. Lots of banter from Mikael Åkerfeldt. Someone yelled “Freebird.” (Someone always yells “Freebird.” Seriously, I think we need legislative action here. Note to people who like to yell “Freebird” - you are not anywhere near as clever or funny as you think you are.) The sound was awful. Like, really awful; the bass drum overwhelmed everything, especially the vocals. This seems to be the case every time I see this band and it makes me sad.
Apart from the sound, though, I dug Opeth’s set and waited for Dream Theater satisfied that I’d already seen two pretty good sets, with absolutely no expectations for the last. Just to clarify: I used to love Dream Theater. Images and Words and Awake are two of the albums that originally got me into the whole prog thing, and by association into adventurous music in general. Even as recently as Scenes From a Memory (and especially Live Scenes from New York) I would count myself a fan. But things went quickly downhill from there, and I can’t really say I much like anything that came after Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. It’s telling that the last time I saw the band live (a long time ago in 2002, back when Usenet was apparently still relevant judging from my old post), I thought the best stuff they did was a medley of old material and a cover of Metallica’s Master of Puppets.
This time around, I went in with no expectations and came away pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed Dream Theater’s set. I think I would have liked it even more if I stuck around for the encore, in which they played, well, a medley of old stuff. But what I saw was pretty decent; the new material still doesn’t do a whole lot for me, but these guys have the showmanship thing down, and even if I don’t really dig what they’re playing, at least they are entertaining. When they played “Take the Time” I was really, really reminded of how much better I like the odd-time riffing from the old albums as opposed to the mile-a-minute shredding on some of the newer ones; and some of the songs they played from Scenes From a Memory also came off quite well.
I did start getting a little restless after Jordan Rudess pulled out his wireless keytar thing and played a shredding duo with John Petrucci, and when James LaBrie’s voice started going from somewhat coherent and controlled to, uh, less so. So I booked out of there before I was reminded of all the reasons I don’t like this band as much as I used to. It seems to have worked, as I look back on the concert now with good feelings. The highlight for me was definitely BTBAM — and I would really like to see them on a headlining tour sometime — but the rest of the sets were pretty solid as well. The venue seemed pretty full and folks were getting into the bands, though the turnout for Dream Theater was way, way higher than for anyone else, which was understandable but still made me a little sad to see. It was interesting to see the tension of folks who were there for Dream Theater listening to metal with growled/screamed vocals — not surprisingly, during the BTBAM and Opeth sets there were a fair number of people that retreated to the concourse and downstairs lounge.
A couple unexpected reviews of proggy albums at indie-rock review sites kick off 2007: Pitchfork reviewsOpeth’s Ghost Reveries; and Stylus reviewsÄlgarnas Trädgård’s Framtiden är ett svävande skepp, foränkrat i forntiden. The latter is particularly unexpected, but apparently that classic of Swedish psych-rock has recently been reissued.
Also, for those who haven’t been paying attention for the past few weeks, Mike McLatchey’s excellent Outer Music Diary has been revived and the posts are coming fast, furious and informative.
I saw Opeth again (I saw them last year in New York) last Sunday night at the 9:30 Club. It was pretty good, not quite as tight as the last time I saw them, but the sound quality was definitely far, far better. They did a pretty cool set, including some tunes they had apparently not done live on earlier tours (”April Ethereal” from My Arms, Your Hearse, “The Moor” from Still Life - which was awesome - and the title track from Blackwater Park), and a couple from Damnation which were, just like on the album, pleasant but kind of boring.
One interesting thing was that the crowd here in DC was totally different from the crowd in New York. They were much tamer, with a lot less moshing and crowd-surfing. What moshing there was was sort of lame and halfhearted. I’m not one to get myself into mosh pits, preferring to pay attention to the band, but I was fascinated by the difference. There were also a lot more women in the audience (okay, girls - it was a pretty young audience as far as I could tell). I’m not sure if this is the nature of DC versus New York (the latter city almost certainly has more metal shows and thus probably has a bigger set of metalhead concertgoers), or if the band’s release of the softer Damnation brought more female fans into the fold. Who knows.
Also interesting was one of the opening bands, Moonspell. They had some good moments musically, but they were also insufferably cheesy. The front man took himself waaaay too seriously and was even waving around a pole with some sort of fake skull on top of it for one song. I found the whole affair absolutely hilarious. One of the nicer things about Opeth is that they eschew the cheesy Satanisms of some of the more pretentious death- or black-metal bands, and their front man is very amiable, joking around and bantering with the audience. Yet he still managed a threatening, larger-than-life stage presence during the heavier numbers, delivering his trademark growl convincingly. (During the Damnation pieces, on the other hand, he transformed into a vulnerable, expressive singer - if his versatility wasn’t impressive before, it certainly struck me as so this time around.)
Alright, so people on other forums are starting to post their Top 10 lists for 2003, which means it’s about time for me to post my Top 10 list for 2002. I started doing this last year - I think top 10 lists for the current year are dumb, because (1) the year’s not over yet, (2) there’s no way I already have many of the great releases from this year yet, and (3) a lot of great CDs have long gestation periods before I really start to like them (I’m looking at the new Thinking Plague here).
Without further ado, my top 10 favorite releases (not limited to prog, as will become obvious) of 2002 are as follows, in some kind of rough order:
Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
I’m one with the indie critics here: this was the best album of the year. When I reviewed it I was taken by its meshing of catchy melodies with slightly skewed instrumental tendencies, and its charm has yet to falter. Anyone interested in somewhat “out” pop-indie should check this out.
Anti-Pop Consortium - Arrhythmia
The biggest shame of 2002 was the dissolution of this group, one of the most innovative rap groups of the past decade. Arrhythmia has all the usual Anti-Pop trimmings: dazzling, abstract wordplay, production from an alien planet, and even some killer beats. For the cutting edge of hip-hop, look no further.
5uu’s - Abandonship
This one made a huge splash in the prog/RIO world, and with good reason, marking a triumphant return to Hunger’s Teeth form. Best prog album of the year, easily.
Shalabi Effect - The Trial of St-Orange
This was the pleasant surprise of the year for me; I didn’t expect to like this kind of abstract psychedelia so much, but these guys are good enough at what they do that they make it accessible to anyone. There are some amazing moments of beauty swimming around the ambient haze here.
NeBeLNeST - Nova Express
Grandly portentous instrumental prog, full of imposing riffs and sinister, rumbling bass: epic “space-zeuhl” at its best. The closing title track on this album is simply a treat.
Satoko Fujii and Tatsuya Yoshida - Toh-Kichi
This is just about as weird and whimsical as you might expect from the pairing of Yoshida with a free-jazz pianist (in an improv setting no less), and amazingly, it works. By turns stunning, amusing, and fucking hilarious.
Do Make Say Think - & Yet & Yet
In a year with a dearth of good new post-rock, this album was a saving grace. Jazzy, atmospheric instrumental noodling that never gets too unfocused and yet always takes its sweet time getting to the point. Luckily, the journey is an enticing one.
The Flying Luttenbachers - Infection and Decline
Okay, I admit it: this one is on the list solely for the utterly blazing cover of “De Futura” (from Magma’s Üdü Wüdü), which takes the funk out of the equation and replaces it with pure, unmitigated aggression. The original pieces here are also capable of blowing your head off.
Opeth - Deliverance
Many a fan of this group panned this album, and indeed it offers little variation on a well-established formula. But for me, it perfects said formula, mixing perfectly its death-metal aggression and vocals with more leisurely (and accessibly melodic) passages. This actually might be my favorite Opeth album.
The Roots - Phrenology
This one’s just a lot of fun. Perfectly accessibly hip-hop with just a touch of experimental tendencies, particularly on the track “Water”, which has been called “prog-hop”. More importantly, this thing grooves, and has some great melodies to boot.
Barely missing the cut were Beck’s Sea Change, Missy Elliott’s Under Construction, Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It In People, Uzva’s Niittoaika, and even Paatos‘ Timeloss (solely on the strength of its closing track). Some mildly surprising omissions include ( ) by Sigur Rós, which simply didn’t have the staying power I expected it to have, and Univers Zero’s Rhythmix, which I liked at first but really pales in comparison to the band’s older work, IMHO.
Overall, despite everything I just wrote, I think 2002 was a pretty disappointing year. There are a lot of pretty good albums listed above, but only the top few on the list really blew me away. As preliminary as it is, I can already say that 2003 has been a much better year for music.
I walked into Best Buy today and, much to my surprise, Opeth’s “In My Time of Need” (from Damnation) was playing. If I were more cynical, I would believe this to be the ultimate evidence that Damnation is generic and dull enough for mass consumption; however, I’m not quite that cynical. As it was, I was happy to hear it.
Today I got, from amazon.com, the new Camper Van Beethoven box set, Cigarettes & Carrot Juice. I’d only heard some MP3s of this band before, but I liked what I’d heard and for a 5CD box, this release is pretty damn cheap. So I went ahead and took a gamble. And though I’ve only listened to about half the contents of the box, I gotta say: this stuff is utterly brilliant! I immediately fell in love with the first disc - a reissue of the band’s first album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory. It’s astoundingly creative lo-fi post-punk type stuff, with some Eastern European influenced instrumentals that are just great. I’ll probably be reviewing this stuff in the near future… I’m really enthralled.
I also got the new Opeth, which is also great, and the new Grey Eye Glances, which sucks. To be fair I’ve only listened to half of it once, but it made me bare my fangs.