Everyone dies. Of course we all know that, we’re aware of it from an early age. Yet in metal the idea of death, actual death, not phony-baloney doom and gloom play-acting, has always been overly romanticized rather than dealt with head-on. The explanation is simple: heavy metal is still a very young subculture. Prior to a few years ago every single notable death of a major heavy metal talent has always involved someone cruelly young, taken far, far before their prime. Randy Rhoads, Euronymous, Dimebag, Quorthon all gone before they made it to middle age. Couple that with the overt hero worship in metal, that beer-fueled, bleary and teary-eyed romanticism that reeks of Vikings raising a cup to their fallen brethren, and you’ve got a scene populated with a lot of people who clearly aren’t ready to accept that metal musicians are not immortal, are not “gods”, are not impervious to the ravages of the hard life, let alone old age.
People get old, and people die. Ronnie James Dio was the first major icon of heavy metal to die at a rich old age, and the more time goes on, the older those rockers from the 1970s and ‘80s get, musicians hitting 50, 60, and in the case of a few, approaching 70. It was interesting watching the reaction in the past year to Lemmy’s own health problems, as so many seemed shocked that this guy, beloved to everyone, is starting to show signs of wear and tear. Well, a steady diet of cigarettes and Jack and Coke will do that to a person, even the guy who created one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands in history. Nobody is immune, and it’s a statistical fact that more prominent figures in metal will indeed die soon. Some earlier than others, it’s so very sad to say, but metal fans, and especially we writers, have to get a grip, because some very difficult obituaries are looming on the horizon. Dio, Jon Lord, Jeff Hanneman, and the wonderful Dave Brockie are just the tip of the iceberg.
Brockie's death is especially disheartening, because GWAR was on one hell of a roll, having put out its best album in forever, 2013’s Battle Maximus. Brockie, as GWAR's chief architect, was a brilliant creative mind, and some might say a conceptual shock rock genius. No matter where you lived, it seemed, GWAR was a constant, always churning out new music, always rolling through town once, twice, or maybe more per year. It was great to have them around, and over the years I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen them play. Nearly sixth months ago I saw my umpteenth GWAR show, arriving with no real expectations, but the band blew my mind that night with a ferocious performance, also using the most fake blood I’ve ever seen sprayed at one of its shows. There was a literal lake of crimson liquid on the floor afterward, delirious fans playing slip-and-slide through the pool, and down the street outside were bloody footprints trailing for more than a block. It was extraordinary, and reaffirmed my appreciation for Brockie and his band.
Then again, Brockie and GWAR always had a rather special place in my heart. I saw them play a show in November of 2004 in a cozy dive of a club, which as usual was covered from floor to ceiling with sheet plastic to avoid staining its gaudy tiki bar and 1980s carpet. It was such a tiny place for a GWAR show that no matter where you were, you were in danger of being splattered, but I had been doing a good job ducking the flying goo. That is, until an aborted fetus Brockie – erm, I mean Oderus – was holding nailed me with globs of green liquid. It was much thicker than you usual water-based GWAR goo, and refused to wash completely off. The next day, my second niece was born, and I held her for the first time that afternoon in arms still bearing those green stains. I thought of that moment every time I saw GWAR since, and that little girl has grown up to be a nine and half year old, guitar and drums playing, hockey playing, snowboarding, horns-throwing hellion. Above all else, I’m a dreamer, and I like to think a little GWAR rubbed off on that awesome little kid when she and I first met.
Meanwhile, life goes on, and new releases keep rolling in. Here’s this week’s crop:
Ancient Ascendant, Echoes And Cinder (Candlelight): The fact that the second full-length album by the British band has an uncanny similarity to Enslaved is immediately appealing. It’s capably done, with strong melodies, a good balance of controlled pace and full-on extremity. However, what’s missing is that creativity and mastery that sets Enslaved apart from its peers. With a promising track like “Embers”, though, the band shows it could find its own niche soon enough.
Animals As Leaders, The Joy of Motion (Sumerian): What’s so extraordinary about Tosin Abasi and Animals As leaders isn’t so much how the band has appropriated the compositional style of Meshuggah, but rather how they’ve taken the influence of King Crimson’s Discipline, one of the most arch, pretentious, and nerdiest sounds rock music has ever produced, and created something so shockingly popular. This new album is a Chapman Stick away from full on geekery, and good for them. And to be honest, the less overtly heavy the songs are, the more the record succeeds. Abasi is an incredibly inventive musician, his percussive playing style displaying remarkable fluidity and sensitivity, and when freed of that distracting Meshuggah fixation, which to be honest will never, ever top the actual Meshuggah, the songs achieve a dreamy, ethereal quality, haphazard note patterns sounding busy at first but always settling into a strange comfort zone. Consequently a song like the gorgeous “Another Year” stands out, Abasi and company stopping lying to themselves, ditching the metal, and embracing progressive rock fully.
Barren Harvest, Subtle Cruelties (Handmade Birds): Two of the West Coast’s most interesting creative minds, Jessica Way of Worm Ouroboros and Lenny Smith of Atriarch, have teamed up for a haunting new album that sets aside all metal inclinations in favor of a quietly spellbinding marriage of neoclassical and gothic aesthetics. This record lingers with you long after hearing it, a magnificent release by Handmade Birds, who can do no wrong. Order it here.
Coltsblood, Into the Unfathomable Abyss (Candlelight): Typically slow, sludgy doom that lumbers along as a predictably catatonic pace. Yes, this kind of music requires patience, but despite checking off all the required boxes, the British band does nothing to make itself stand out.
Darkentries, The Make Believe (Retro Futurist): At last, a band on Kylesa’s new label that doesn’t sound exactly like Kylesa. Instead, this South Carolina band is all about sludge at its most caustic on this five-song release. While the vocals leave a lot to be desired, there’s no denying their power and hostility, making this a rather promising start overall.
Dread Sovereign, All Hell's Martyrs (Van): Alan Averill is a metal lifer, an artist who cannot sit still when his regular band is dormant. So while his best known project, the great Primordial, is in between albums, he’s carrying on, dipping his wick into whatever new musical effort he can find. Last year brought on the debut album by the Bathory-inspired Twilight of the Gods, and now there’s Dread Sovereign, in which Averill picks up a bass and churns out some old-school doom alongside Primordial drummer Simon O'Laoghaire and a fella named Bones. And like Twilight of the Gods, this album is nothing particularly special – Averill’s vocal melodies are similar to everything he’s done before – but still a solid exercise in a classic form of heavy metal.
Forteresse/Chasse-Galerie/Monarque/Csekthe, Légendes (Sepulchral): For whatever reason, Quebecois black metal is flourishing right now, and four of the better French Canadian bands out there have joined forces on a very cool new double seven-inch release. Each band has contributed one song that pays homage to Quebec folklore, and each is well worth investigating, but top marks go to Forteresse, whose “Wendigo” is some blistering, fast black metal played with rigidity and reverence.
Horseback, Piedmont Apocrypha (Three Lobed): Jenks Miller is back with another Horseback record, and typical of the artist, it’s impossible to predict what you’re going to hear. Well, that’s not entirely true, as you’re bound to hear some sort of music that will elicit the adjective “rustic”. But make no mistake, this latest album is a surprise, and a very pleasant one at that, as Miller is in a far more contemplative mood than on 2012’s much harsher Half Blood. With a bare-bones sound that’s spacious enough to conjure thoughts of the prairie, this is very much in the vein of Earth and Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack, ragged, western-influenced guitar meshing beautifully with trance-like drones. No, there’s no “extreme” metal to speak of on this record save for the faintest trace on the last track “Chanting out the Low Shadow” but in this case that’s a very good thing. There’s power in its tribal stoicism, an unsettling menace in its minimalism.
Hundredeth, Resist (Mediaskare): Instead of writing about this truly awful children’s metalcore, let me steer you in the direction of Hundred, a London band that actually knows how to play proper heavy freaking metal. They’re sort of a British version of Slough Feg and Hammers of Misfortune, heavy on the Thin Lizzy/Celt worship, with the odd proggy touches here and there. Lively, melodic, and promising. Unlike Hundredth, which is just plain depressing. Give it a listen over on Bandcamp.
Pantera, Far Beyond Driven (20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition) (Rhino): Pantera’s seventh album came out 20 years ago this week, and it was noteworthy achievement on several fronts. Although the metal scene was driven back underground in the early 1990s, Pantera was one of the only bands whose popularity was on the rise, and Far Beyond Driven debuting at number one in America was not only a statement of just how much clout the Texas band had earned in the wake of the image-shattering Cowboys From Hell and the classic Vulgar Display of Power, but it was a reassertion of just how much of a force metal could still be. And in a way the popularity of this difficult, uneven album marked a turning point for the genre as a whole. Aggression had always been a vital part of metal, but on this record Pantera brought a level of ugliness that was unsettling. The aggression of Vulgar Display felt safe, its subjects vague, its overall themes ultimately empowering, but Far Beyond Driven wallowed in anger, in antisocial behavior, in negativity. Phil Anselmo’s lyrics were startling in their candor, and were matched perfectly by Darrell (rechristened from “Diamond” to “Dimebag”) Abbott’s down-tuned, sludgy riffs.
However, while kids immediately gravitated to the thing, those of us who were older could sense that worm turning. Along with Korn and Marilyn Manson, the fun was slowly being sucked out of mainstream heavy metal, melody and escapism replaced by crunch and whining about “issues”. It was so much different that death metal at the time, its broad appeal felt fouler, and listening to the sour last two thirds of Far Beyond Driven today, you can practically see mainstream metal heading down that 1990s rabbit hole, that loathsome prefix “nu” looming in the distance. If you want to feel nostalgic about that, then go right ahead, this reissue does sound fantastic and comes with some good bonus material, but it’s nowhere near emblematic of 1990s metal at its finest.
Pretty Maids, Louder Than Ever (Frontiers): “The reason for doing this project is to give those songs a different spin…” You lost us right there, guys. At the very least, fans can buy the five new tracks individually on iTunes, but nobody in their right mind should fall for the “re-recorded hits” gimmick.
Shores of Null, Quiescence (Candlelight): Safe, predictable melancholic doom in the vein of Swallow the Sun. Very good singing, strong dynamics, but the songs need to pop more. Like so many new metal albums, it’s a decent work in progress, but not worth spending money on yet.
Thou, Heathen (Gilead): After innumerable EPs and split releases, the prolific Baton Rouge band is back with its first proper album since 2010’s wildly acclaimed Summit. As hyped as that record was, I refused to buy into it as willingly as others were; for all the promise it showed, it felt like there was so much more to this quintet than what was heard on the record. The usual refrain from scenesters was always, “But you have to see them live.” If they’re that good live, then make it happen on record. If you don’t translate that live power on wax, you’ve failed as a metal band. Consider Heathen a resounding, commanding response to that statement. It is colossal, imposing, highly intense sludgy doom, but as always has been the band’s great strength, always mindful of dynamics, inserting moments of breathtaking beauty amidst all the density. Opening track “Free Will” is a stunning 14 minute exercise in awesome power and startling delicacy, but the real treasures are during the spectacular latter half, where all the doom and gloom is countered with a sensitivity and thoughtfulness that’s genuinely arresting. True, Bryan Funck’s vocals are still the weak spot, but he is nevertheless able to complement the music decently enough to avoid being a distraction. Either way, those who loved Summit have every reason to freak over Heathen, as Thou continue inching towards realizing its massive potential. Listen to it via Bandcamp here. [And find Funck's outstanding lyrics for Heathen here]