I had an interesting conversation with a metal peer over coffee yesterday, and was asked what makes a “traditional” heavy metal album made in 2014 worth spending money on when all I have to do is listen to a Judas Priest album. I had to pause and consider that for a minute. For a writer like me, the appeal of old-school heavy metal revivalist bands boils down to three factors. First is nostalgia. I won’t lie about that one bit. Because my teen years were from 1983 to 1989, and because I followed metal with great meticulousness back then, there’s no question I romanticize that era, and prefer it greatly to any other in metal history from 1970 to the present. But it’s not all about simply mimicking a certain style when it comes to traditional heavy metal, and that’s where the second factor comes in. A band doesn’t just have to have the moves down, it has to get it, to understand the aesthetic inside-out. It has to embrace the ludicrousness of heavy metal – because every single facet of heavy metal is inherently silly – but not act self-aware about it, and the ability to walk that tightrope between silliness and sincerity is what separates the good retro-minded bands from the pretenders. And of course, these bands have to know how to write good charismatic songs, ones that offer an even balance of fist-bangin’ riffs, shredding solos, and searing, arena-level vocal hooks. Cauldron gets it, as does Wolf. 3 Inches of Blood do. White Wizzard did, before they blew imploded. Holy Grail is a great hook or two away from nailing it. And Toronto band Skull Fist, after coming across as a joke on their previous album, can now be included.
I won’t deny it, the nostalgia factor is massive on Chasing the Dream, at least for yours truly. Back in the mid-‘80s there was a quirky trend among several Toronto area bands, where rampaging, speed-riddled, NWOBHM-derived heavy metal would be combined with the kind of upper-register singing that many would otherwise associate with glam metal. And with Toronto being the center (sorry, centre) of the Canadian media universe, an inordinate amount of attention was paid to these bands on TV, in print magazines like the revered Metallion, and on such major label-distributed demo compilations as Maple Metal and the two-volume Moose Molten Metal. Killer Dwarfs, Kid Wikkid (featuring a skinny kid named Sebastian Bach), Vigilants, Hateful Snake, Sye, Reckless, Warriors, Tzar…it wasn’t exactly groundbreaking but it was unique, comically oblivious to the bolder sounds emanating from the local underground scene like Slaughter, Razor, and Sacrifice, but as a 15 year-old I dug it.
Like Cauldron, who cite Reckless as a major influence, Skull Fist understands that melodic mid-‘80s Canadian sound, and Chasing the Dream is absolutely spot on. The songs are simple, devoutly formulaic and conventional, but loaded with biting, contagious riffs atop swaggering, swift tempos. The ace card, though, and the one thing that will either make or break this band for new listeners, is singer Jackie Slaughter, who comes through with an outlandish vocal performance, capturing that androgynous head voice perfectly on song after song. He’s one or two high-pitched screams away for hitting Nitro levels of ridiculousness, but holds back just enough to keep the songs from becoming too impenetrable. Still, this is one deliriously over the top record that captures a long-forgotten era with a sense of verve and joy, but skillfully avoids the “look at me” gimmickry of Steel Panther. It might have some who are used to the more extreme sounds of today wondering just what in the hell they’re listening to, but it makes this old headbanger smile. Sometimes a critic has to go with the heart instead of the head.
Chasing the Dream, which is out now on NoiseArt, is the easy choice for my album of the week, but if you have more of a hankering for the harder stuff, look no further than the terrific new Waldgeflüster album below.
Also out this week:
AC Angry, Newsletter (Dust On The Tracks): These Germans claim to be the next Turbonegro and Zodiac Mindwarp, but for all the references to booze, blow, and sex, the necessary obnoxiousness is nonexistent and the sleaze factor is nil. Hard rock isn’t supposed to sound this tepid.
Alkerdeel & Gnaw Their Tongues, Dyodyo Asema (Consouling Sounds): These two were made for each other. Belgian raw black metalers Alkerdeel and the prolific Dutch musician Mories – the mastermind behind the brilliant and twisted Gnaw Their Tongues – have joined forces for a phenomenal little collaborative effort. Simply a single 19-minute track, it’s a seamless blend of everything both sides do best, Alkerdeel with their primal take on black metal, Mories providing ambient touches that makes the music even more harrowing. With Alkerdeel benefiting from the added atmosphere and Gnaw Their Tongues benefiting from the structure of black metal, this is a partnership far too promising to limit itself to one small release.
Hexis, Abalam (Halo of Flies): As far as intensity goes, it’s easy to compare this Danish band to the likes of Celeste and Dragged Into Sunlight, but this album is a lot blunter, a continual barrage of harsh, mostly two-minute tracks that have no room for subtlety. It’s in and out in 26 minutes, leaving listeners wondering what the hell hit them. Stream and download (name your price) via Bandcamp.
The Isolation Process, The Isolation Process (Version Studio): The shadows of Tool, Paradise Lost, and Dredg loom large over this debut album by the Swedish band, who might have made a big impression on audiences had it come out 15 years ago. Now, though, it’s a pleasantly melodic yet ultimately dated-sounding effort masquerading as “prog”.
Magenta Harvest, Volatile Waters (Inverse): Mathias Lillmåns has taken a little break from playing forgettable folk metal with Finntroll to playing marginally better death metal. There’s actually some catchy stuff here (“Apparition of Ending”, “Limbo in Rime” in particular) but there’s hardly enough here to warrant purchasing the full album.
Serpent, Possessed By Night (High Roller): If you’re looking for primitively recorded NWOBHM revivalism, then this will scratch that itch nicely. The German duo’s 2012 demo has been re-released with a few new recordings tacked on, including a spirited cover of Picture’s “Heavy Metal Ears”, and although the singing needs some work, the songwriting is there and the energy is palpable. It’s a promising start.
Suicidal Angels, Divide and Conquer (NoiseArt): The Greek thrashers are back with two new members and a fifth album on which not a lick has changed in their approach. Rather than trying to be the next Kreator or Destruction, they take a decidedly American approach, faithfully mining the percussive sounds of Exodus, which has always worked very well in their favor in the past, and which does the same here. To their credit the band does mix it up a little, as on “Control the Twisted Mind”, a surprisingly ambitious seven-minute track that showcases some good progressive metal dexterity.
Waldgeflüster, Meine Fesseln (Bindrune): There’s such a strong Woods of Ypres vibe to this third album by the German project, it’s eerie. From the pagan-tinged black metal, to the heavy use of melancholy and melodrama, to the sly incorporation of doom and gothic elements, to the lower-register singing, you’d swear the late David Gold is behind this. But give singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Winterherz credit, he’s come through with a stirring, soulful, and atmospheric collection of black metal epics that easily transcend any language barrier. Arriving at a time when the new release landscape couldn’t seem bleaker, this is a welcome, rejuvenating discovery. Be careful, though, your corpsepaint will run like crazy once the tears flow during “Mit Welchen Fesseln”, which we premiered last week.
We All Die (Laughing), Thoughtscanning (Kaotoxin): This 33-minute track meanders the way you think an extended prog metal opus would, and then a clarinet solo pops in from out of nowhere. It’s pretty much the high point of the record.