Disposable Heroes: Confessor's "Condemned"

There's little more annoying on this planet than the immoral majority telling you how essential, transcendent and (huh-huh) seminal a particular extreme album is, when you know that it's overrated as fuck. Hence, our new Wednesday morning column, "Disposable Heroes," in which one brave soul sails against the current to inform all you clones why you can't spell classic without "ass." This week, Chris Dick fesses up to not feeling Confessor's classic Condemned THE SET-UP: I distinctly remember buying Confessor’s Condemned in longbox (what’s this?) form, sure as shit on a pig farm I was in for the typical "Earache experience." The cover art, snake-like logo, song titles like “Collapse Into Despair” and “Eve of Salvation,” and Earache splat badge all pointed to a vicious pummeling of extreme metal proportions. Bolt Thrower, Napalm Death, Morbid Angel, Entombed, Godflesh, Carcass, etc. had blown my teenage mind to smithereens, so why not Confessor? On the walk home from Wherehouse Records, where much of my paltry allowance was willingly surrendered, the intrigue continued to build. Condemned, I was absolutely sure, was going to change my world. It would be the talking point the next day in English class. For example, we all took turns listening to Kreator’s Coma of Souls and Bolt Thrower’s Warmaster on a Walkman before the bell rang. We were collectively stupefied. Not by Coma of Souls—a damned fine album in its own right—but by Warmaster. Much to our youthful delight, the heaviness threshold had been found and unexpectedly shattered. Side note: around the same time, Grave’s Into the Grave also touched our funny can’t-believe-it’s-so-heavy button. Anyway, long sappy story short, I was ready for Confessor’s Condemned to up the ante. To be the talking point of our morning music ritual.

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THE CRITIQUE: “Alone.” I don’t remember my reaction to Condemned’s opener, but I imagine I made one of those who-farted? faces when this song stammered out of my budget Panasonic ghettoblaster. Before LOL, OMG and WTF, it certainly was a wide-eyed, open-mouthed moment. I had bought some stinkers—Torn Flesh’s Crux of the Mosh is a highlight, Repulsion’s Scott Carlson had sold me Cyclone Temple’s I Hate Therefore I Am but recommended Altars of Madness, and I stupidly bought Hellbastard’s Natural Order on the Earache logo alone—before, but I figured I couldn’t go wrong with Confessor. Such a cool band name. Had to have cool music. Nope. I’m pretty sure my Sepultura Arise and Death Human posters stared down at me with disapproval as well. But I soldiered on, grimacing deeper and deeper at Scott Jeffreys as he convulsed unnaturally atop Brian Shoaf and Ivan Colon’s Trouble-meets-Rush-meets-Tampa riff crenelations. Having cut my pee-wee teeth on thrash, I was used to strange vocalists, but Jeffreys was some kind of bizarre blend of Scott Holderby, Russ Anderson and Mike Howe.

“Prepare Yourself.” It’s easy to see why the press called Confessor "the Next Metallica." Well, “Prepare Yourself” was sort of an altered universe take on ...And Justice for All—specifically “Harvester of Sorrow”—but unlike the Bay Area heroes, Confessor’s compositional ideas didn’t quite gel. Shoaf and Colon are all over the place on this track. Actually, the mid and end sections have to be Condemned’s most awkward moments. OK, it’s different and jigsaw-like. But, fuck, it’s like three bands jamming together, and only by sheer luck do they meet up for a split second to sound stupendous.

“Collapse Into Despair.” Again, Metallica. Perhaps with select Tommy Victor-isms thrown in. Shoaf and Colon’s crawling riffs don’t ever quite mesh with Steve Shelton’s percussive talents. Shelton’s off puttering rhythmic polygons in the corner while Confessor’s guitarists debate in real time whether or not to stop the tune. Meanwhile, Jeffreys bemoans feelings of "sorrow," "doubt" and "despair" like he’s auditioning for Solitude Aeturnus. I didn’t get “Collapse into Despair” then. And I don’t get it now.

“Defining Happiness.” Yeah, Confessor finally have a song in their midst. Too bad for the North Carolinians the Trouble-ish pace labors what could’ve been an otherwise good song. Sure, Confessor didn’t write music with money in mind, but I have to wonder if “Defining Happiness” was one of those precious do-we-have-to? moments. One of the few tracks on Condemned neutered by its own restraint.

“Uncontrolled.” I rarely ever hit the fast-forward button in my exploratory music phase. Unless it was Cyclone Temple or maybe Cerebral Fix. But I probably pressed it as quickly as possible as “Uncontrolled” unfurled like an undulating girl. Jeffreys’ vocals border on hilarious. I’m sure at the time I selected this track to close the many compilations I made for various interested parties. You know, falsely end the comp with “Doomsday Celebration,” then a few seconds later wham!

“Condemned.” Ah, the title track. There’s a reason Earache made this single and video. The opening drum and riff salvo are brilliant. As is the twitchy movement that follows. Hell, once Jeffreys settles in, he’s moderately tolerable against Shoaf and Colon’s cascading lines and Shelton’s ever-clever pitter patters. Confessor hint at a hook on “Condemned” and for that it’s really the only track on the album I can tolerate for its entirety. The limp production finally complements the music, too.

“Eve of Salvation.” Out of Condemned’s nine tunes, it’s one of the rare occasions where bassist Cary Rowells has audible bass parts (see also “Uncontrolled”). The Southern swampy groove seems at odds—no, really?!—with Jeffreys’ vocal obelisks. However, heads can bob for more than 1.2 seconds to it, and I feel it’s this reason alone why, to this day, the song twitterpates the quickly impressionable. “Dude, it’s so heavy and it’s catchy!” Well, duh. So is “Cenotaph,” but you don’t hear me exclaiming it changed the minds of bands everywhere for eternity. OK, maybe Hatebreed.

“The Stain.” By the time “The Stain” lands like a clipped-wing bird, my patience for Confessor has all but been exhausted. For as "progressive" as Confessor are labeled, “The Stain” is proof-positive the group had the same oh-shit-we’re-out-ideas as everyone else. Start, stop, riff a bit, pule a lot, carry on for four minutes. Rhythmically, Metallica comes to mind again when Confessor focus. Which is rare.

“Suffer.” The lead-ins on Condemned almost always rule. I’ll recognize that fact. But if there was a perfect name for a track, it’s “Suffer." After Jeffreys'' scream fades in, “Suffer” starts to fall apart. Perhaps it’s the mix—Jeffreys occupying most of the attention here. He's out on an island screaming away while the rest of his bandmates are five miles on the mainland debating whether or not to riff Bruce Franklin or James Hetfield-like. Whatever it is, I find it hard to accept that, while Confessor were indeed unique for the time (they remain singular, really), they never wrote songs. Just snippets of sometimes math-minded, sometimes groove-oriented music haphazardly pieced together by Shelton’s immaculate drumming.

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THE FUCKING END: There was (and still is) lots of praise heaped on Confessor. In retrospect, I can understand why. The musicianship—particularly Shelton’s drum work—is outstanding. It could’ve been, though I don’t have proof, the spark that kicked off Meshuggah’s post-Contradictions Collapse stutter thrash. Or the progressive metal album everyone forgot while they (death metal’s plebes) poured unfettered oh-that’s-so-gay! hate on like-minded forward-leaning albums in Cynic’s Focus, Believer’s Dimensions and Pestilence’s Spheres two years later. But I continue to feel—Condemned manages to make me cringe to this very day—that Confessor’s debut is more adored for its parts rather than its whole. That I’m still talking about it with the same unease—in the morning no less!—20 years later… Ah, well, bravo to Confessor.

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