Archive for the ‘Metal’ Category

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Off This Century – My Favorite Albums of 2000-2009

December 25, 2009
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Halloween Albums

October 24, 2008

Halloween is near, and I have started to pick out some spooky favorites from the music library. I figured it might be appropriate to acknowledge some of the more genuinely scary or creepy albums I have come in contact with over the years. Six might seem like a rather arbitrary number, but these releases are of a rare breed and I find each one to be essential to the list. Of course there’s nothing wrong with traditional Halloween music (the Monster Mash, sure), or some other fun retro music that might be appropriate for the holiday (The Cramps!), but if you want something that might really creep you out, this list might be able to help.

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Alice in Chains – Dirt

Alice in Chains’ second album Dirt arrived just in time for the Halloween season in 1992, and took over the grunge scene with its spooky hard rocking style. The album is almost unbelievably advanced past the band’s debut album Facelift, every song taking on its own texturally rich identity. In terms of technical skill, every member of the band is in prime form despite their drug addictions which are reflected heavily in the album’s lyrical themes. The late and great Layne Staley spits “what the hell am I/thousand eyes a fly/lucky then I’d be/if one day deceased” on one of the album’s underhand knockouts Sickman. We can hear both the anger and anguish associated with personal breakdowns and drug abuse. The consistency of the album alone makes it one of the finest albums that grunge had to offer, with a killer lineup of singles, the hammering Them Bones, Vietnam reminiscent Rooster, and possibly the greatest grunge single ever, Would?. But the highlights don’t stop there; the album also has a slew of brooding, slow moving, moody masterpieces (Dirt, Rain When I Die, Down In A Hole), as well as many other sleeper highlights (God Smack is the origin of the name of AiC knockoffs Godsmack, to exemplify the album’s influence). Although Alice in Chains’ best work may be scattered throughout their albums and EPs, Dirt is easily their most representative and possibly most accomplished work, a scary, fun, and emotional masterpiece of its genre.

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Slint – Spiderland

Considered the premier post rock album, Slint’s second and final album Spiderland is made by a band with absolutely nothing to lose. Perhaps it is this that makes it so startlingly affecting. How out of no where the album must have seen at the time is also probably a reason that it was as vastly influential as it is. But legacy aside, Spiderland is quite a scary album by all accounts, softly building damaged melodies out of nothing and then disassembling them again. As soon as the opening arpeggiated harmonics of Breadcrumb Trail start, it sounds like the beginning of the end. This mysterious, slow urgency pulls the listener through the albums six unsettling songs with great anxiousness. All of Slint’s weaponry is fully formed here; their percussive anger, David Pajo’s atmospheric guitars and sense of instrumental tension, and Brian McMahan’s oft whispered creepy poetry. These elements make for six completely perfect songs, the rocking Nosferatu Man, the quiet, brooding Don Amon, the sadly beautiful Washer, and the extremely quiet instrumental For Dinner… It all seems to lead to something, and when it does, we get one of the single scariest and most beautiful songs of the nineties, Good Morning Captain, which evades all explanation. It may disappoint fans that the subsequent two song Slint EP was as far as the band would ever go, but Slint’s three releases, and particularly Spiderland were all they needed to be one of the most important bands of their genre.

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Boards of Canada – Geogaddi

With Board’s of Canda’s second major full length release Geogaddi, brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin make certain that their love of degradation and psychosis plays itself out on more than just their own production values. In fact, one might be given the false impression of their own mental degradation while listening to the album, it is so elaborately and eerily constructed. Although its format is essentially the same as its championing predecessor Music Has The Right To Children (long pieces dispersed with very short pieces, beat driven IDM), their style is distinctly advanced over their previous works. The album is almost extravagantly detailed with myriad fascinating jigsaw pieces of sound; reversed beats, distorted vocal samples, dissonant chords, and heavy aural contrasts provide the album’s basic groundwork. Although some pieces here are vaguely reminiscent of previous fan favorites (Sunshine Recorder, 1969, Dawn Chorus), every song is highly advanced and vaguely unsettling. Throughout the album Boards of Canada paint as they call it a vast, winding, labyrinthine “journey” through a beautiful and horribly warped dreamland. Once you follow the white rabbit down the hole, something immediately seems very, horribly wrong, and this feeling is played with, turned upside down and inside out at every turn of the album. The more you think about it, the more it scares you, and the more one recognizes its intricacies such as mathematical structures, biblical references, and distorted fascination with the occult, the more one wants to dismiss Geogaddi as pretentious and supersaturated. However, it is a genuinely creepy album, and its ominous atmosphere cannot be denied. And yet the brothers state the ultimate innocuousness of the album in interviews. “…If we’re spiritual at all, it’s purely in the sense of caring about art and inspiring people with ideas.” (interview “Play Twice Before LIstening” by Koen Poolman). Despite what its message is, Geogaddi is an album that genuinely brings you to the brink of your own mind and refuses to let you forget the experience.

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Coil – The Ape of Naples

If any album has ever been literally haunted, or at least come close, The Ape of Naples is the culprit. Created posthumously after Coil frontman John Balance tragically fell to his death over the banisters of his Mansfield home in a drunken stupor, The Ape of Naples is actually a collection of the industrial/electronic band’s leftover material. This makes the overall cohesion of the album nothing short of a small miracle of planning. In fact, it makes little to no sense that this album is more than a rarities compilation, and it is more, much more. Through it’s lengthy textural songs it develops many stories with real life reference points, perhaps outlining both the experiences of the unsettling said ape on the cover art as well as John Balance’s descent into alcohol addiction. The haunting opening chords of Fire of The Mind (the original title of the album) set the stage for an album loaded with treasures, all uniquely disturbing and affecting. Songs call on an eclectic selection of instruments such as accordions, marimbas, horns and pipes, and as always carefully synthesized melodies, beats, and atmospherics. Songs range from gentle to violent, and the album’s transformation is downright scary. The Ape of Naples is an all around great performance from all those involved, but John Balance remains the album’s key player. His voice touches every song in different ways, and his emotion is fluid, sometimes gracing songs with subtle melancholy and other times with spitting anger. The album comes to a close with a cover of the British sitcom Are You Being Served?’‘s theme song Going Up, featuring vocals from Balance’s final onstage performance at the Dublin Electronic Arts Festival in 2004. And with John Balance’s final vocals, locations of bedding materials, tea, and travel products as well as the final direction of an elevator, it isn’t hard to hear him simultaneously falling down and going up.

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Merzbow – 1930

Many non-noise fans may turn on Japanese noise godfather’s quintessential album, 1930, and be disgusted. It is, to put it one way, a deliberately disgusting album, barely music in any traditional sense, and more of a terrifying sound assault. Perhaps best at home in a torture chamber (just how the bondage obsessed Merzbow would like it), listening to 1930 at loud volumes is a potentially terrifying experience that can push one’s sanity to the limit. Once again, it is barely even music, but more an aural representation of a mile high battleship with cannons filling every square inch, all firing at the listener at the same time. Reach for the off switch and the terror goes away temporarily, but curiosity will make you turn it on again at some point, and when you get curious enough to listen to the entire thing, you probably won’t be able to turn it off as much as you want to. There is something almost inhuman and unearthly about 1930 that manages to consistently fascinate here, and even if you can’t bear to turn the volume up higher than a whisper, it is unspeakably overbearing. Everything from the fiery title track to the dizzying cacophony of Degradation of Tape to the final explosive, twenty two minute, ever changing Iron, Glass, Blocks and White, everything here is sheer chaos. For how brutal and unpredictable it is, it is no surprise that this horrifying album is considered a cornerstone of noise music. To say it is good or bad is irrelevant, because it definitely shouldn’t be judged by the same standards as any other album on this list, let alone any form of “art” on this planet.

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Brian Eno – Ambient 4

Brian Eno’s final installment in his Ambient series is possibly the most emotionally startling ambient album of all time, and may be considered to be the first dark ambient album. In that sense it is hard to imagine the entire genre of demonic dark ambient texture without this album as a precursor, although Ambient 4 is anything but paganistic or demonic. In fact, there is little to nothing subversive about Ambient 4 in the slightest, except perhaps its one odd song out, the deliberately creepy Shadow featuring Jon Hassell on trumpet, although if we are talking about scare factor the song is the album’s clear winner. Beyond this song, the album makes its goals known almost instantaneously and follows through with its goals systematically, like the other members of the beautiful ambient family. Moreso than any other album on this list, Ambient 4 carries a wide range of emotions with it, of which horror is only one. The collection of soundtracks to geographic locations here range from touchingly calm (A Clearing) to impendingly scary (The Lost Day). The distant chains of Lantern Marsh, the distorted miasma of Tal Coat, the birds and frogs of Leeks Hills…The album is startlingly emotional in ways that can be simultaneously relaxing and unsettling. On one hand, you get the feeling that at any point during the album someone could appear behind you and cause your heart to skip a beat, and yet at the same time the soundscapes are warm and completely safe sounding. The wide range of emotion here is mostly due to simple skill in production and crafting of music. The soundscapes sound so deftly realistic that the emotion comes quite naturally and makes the overall product quite moving. This may be the one to play on the boombox outside when the trick-or-treaters come by.

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Tool – Opiate

September 15, 2008

Tool guitarist Adam Jones has said of Opiate that the band wanted to put their fastest, most muscular songs out first to make a splash, and it is easy to see how the plan worked and gained the group early popularity. If Tool’s later releases see their ideas fully realized and developed, they are still exhausting and difficult, while the Opiate EP is alternatively short, testosterone fueled, and fairly easy to digest, and probably the reason that Tool were initially grouped into the grunge scene by critics. The single Sweat is representative of the overall style of the album, heavy yes, but also catchy and skillfully written. In fact, it will surprise some that Tool seems to enter their career with great finesse. Adam Jones and Danny Carrey in particular play fast and complex rhythms that would come to characterize the band later on. Maynard James Keenan’s lyrics are the most undeveloped aspect of the band at first notice, but he does tell us up front that he “can say what he wants to,” so it is hard to argue against such confidence. The excellent albums that follow it are superior, but Opiate is anything but insignificant.

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Zoät·Aon – Star Autopsy

April 12, 2008

Star Autopsy

Star Autopsy is a cave.

It is probably the most interesting cave you have ever heard. It has many winding passages and a large, open atrium. Throughout the course of the album, the cave is invaded by millions of bats. It is abducted by aliens. Then, it is dropped into the middle of a jungle. After this, it is exposed to a great deal of ritualistic degredation. It sees heaven, and it sees hell.

But nonetheless, it is a cave, and you don’t really want to listen to a cave.

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Meshuggah – obZen

April 2, 2008

In a nutshell, Meshuggah are the heaviest metal band I have ever heard, and arguably the most sophisticated. Each of their albums has something to be said for it individually, but their style of being reliably unpredictable has kept up without being much different. It sounds strange, I know. It is a bizarre contradiction. In that way, stylistic differences between obZen and Meshuggah’s previous records are subtle. The album shreds with tonal spikes, crushes with breakneck beats, and booms with growling vocals in the same way that the previous albums did. But now, they occasionally pull a hint of mysticism out of their bag of tricks. The difference is almost negligible.

But it doesn’t tire me out. ObZen is the culmination of Meshuggah’s style thus far. All of the band’s good aspects are rolled into a single, compact album that doesn’t waste much time. In terms of production, the guitars still sound very heavy, and are still as far as I know the same type of guitars used on I and the Nothing re-release, that is, downtuned eight strings. Fredrik Thordendal has created some of his most instantly memorable riffs here. Tomas Haake is back on live drums after a break during the recording of Catch Thirty Three, which used a drum machine. Haake is the centerpiece of the band. His rhythms are considerable at the very least because they are complex and take an unfathomable degree of talent to produce, and the drum production is heated and inward. Thordendal’s guitar parts seem to ride along Haake’s heavy low-toned rhythms like a menacing crow resting on the head of a rhinoceros, except both animals are on crack and are charging forward at full speed.

Somewhere along the line, I stopped trying to count rhythms. I mean, in general. When listening to music. I did not think about them. When playing a song, it would come naturally to me, and I became more at ease with music that features complex rhythms and syncopation. Breakbeats from Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, for example, are one of the numerous hurdles I cleared to reach the point where my rhythmic comfort zone exploded. When I first listened to Meshuggah, I had not reached this point.

I have clearly become comfortable with Meshuggah’s rhythms by now, by realizing that there is no way I could possibly keep up with them. That said, the signposts for any Meshuggah songs are difficult to pinpoint. The drums and guitars are too huge and complex to be signposts, and all of the vocals sound the same. It isn’t easy getting acquainted and comfortable with Meshuggah, but it is a battle worth winning. The opening Combustion is one of the band’s most memorable and adrenaline charged songs. It is followed up by comparably moody Electric Red, and then the sonic firestorm of Bleed. Although obZen pulls its best cards first, it rarely slips up. Pineal Gland Optics is also a standout, and Dancers To A Discordant System rounds everything off quite nicely.

ObZen differentiates itself by simply being of high quality. Although there isn’t a hell of a lot new going on for the band, they have at the very least constructed their tightest collection of songs to date. ObZen ties the experimental EP I for the most representative Meshuggah release, and in full album form. All of Meshuggah’s trademarks are here. Crushing, geometric storms of drums and guitars are periodically interrupted by guitar solos, some of which are fast with complex modes, others that are slow, unaccompanied, dissonant noises which contrast impending doom.

Although it seems as if Meshuggah have reached their stylistic boundaries, that did not stop them from making an awfully good album to kick off 2008. Fans will find familiar excellence, and new listeners would be encouraged to start here.

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Dream Theater – Score DVD

September 29, 2007

I had the privilege of seeing Dream Theater play in Chicago during the 2007 Systematic Chaos tour. I am not even that huge of a fan of Dream Theater, but I will admit, I got my ass kicked by that concert. It was just one of those concerts that everyone should go see just because of the technical proficiency involved in the playing. Even if you find it hard to sit through a Dream Theater album, a Dream Theater concert will rock your face off. John Petrucci was, as always a beast, and his solos were top notch, faster and more blistering than usual. As a bass player, my eyes are always half glued to the axe wielder, and John Myung is an intense player, always standing stationary like some kind of ghostly brigger nailing out progressive grooves on his massive six string. I don’t think I need to say how ridiculous drummer Mike Portnoy is. He has to be one of the greatest drummers ever. His stage presence is massive, if nothing else, because his kit seems to take up half the stage anyway. Keyboard player Jordan Rudess is probably the least rocking member of the band, mostly because he spends most of his time on stage either reinforcing Petrucci’s already powerful chords or producing some cheesy, unnecessary solos of his own. But I was still impressed with his various keytar solos, even though they lasted far longer than they should have. He is the weakest link, if Dream Theater even has one. I used to think James LaBrie was the weakest member of the band. His vocals always annoyed me. But at that concert, he was impressive. His voice has not declined in twenty years, and he brings a certain amount of clarity to the music.

Despite the fact that Dream Theater are a rock band, they do have that clarity about them. Which is a big reason why people dislike them. Even for a progressive rock band, they always sound clean cut. They have the long, cheesy, cliche solos. LaBrie is, in many respects, too good of a singer and is not interesting in his delivery. Either you appreciate Dream Theater, or you don’t. Either you find them entertaining or trashy, both reasonable opinions.

So if you don’t like Dream Theater, this won’t convince you of anything, except maybe that they know how to produce a concert well. If you do like Dream Theater, Score is an asset, more so than any other bootleg or DVD, just because this is the band at their tightest and best sounding, with their most rounded set to date. If you don’t know Dream Theater, I guess this is as close as you can get to a greatest hits, because this is a 20th Anniversary concert and the band stretches out their entire career into the set.

But you have to consider two things here…The music and the video. You can buy the Score 3 CD set or the 2 DVD set.

For listening, Score is a real winner for Dream Theater fans. The setlist is really balanced. The first portion of the concert contains songs from the bands first ten years or so, hitting favorite numbers such as The Root Of All Evil, Under A Glass Moon, and the power ballad classic The Spirit Carries On. If you are the kind of person that appreciates that signature Dream Theater cheesy solo heroism, you will find some really good stuff here. After the first set, the Octavarium Orchestra is introduced, a full orchestra that accompanies the band for the rest of their set, for two disks, playing massive epics such as the forty minute long Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, Octavarium, Metropolis, and some other good ones. The orchestra adds an extra level of talent and puts new angles on all of the songs. Their inclusion is the most appreciated part of the concert. The music here is great for what it is.

But what I found while watching the DVD was… It was a task. I mean, it was impressive, but there isn’t much to see, except all the solos. The show is so massive that it is really hard to hold ones attention through the whole thing unless you are big enough of a fan to recognize all the songs. I am not THAT big of a fan. And to be honest, each Dream Theater song develops in so many different directions that no matter how much I listen to them, I doubt I will ever become truly acquainted with their catalog. It’s not that Dream Theater are a band that you either love or hate. Of the ten people who I saw the concert with, only two of them were truly fans, and the rest of us just casual listeners. We really liked the concert. And if you like Dream Theater, you really should see them, because their live experience is half of what makes the band who they are. The energy of the concerts are really amazing. There is no replacement for hearing those opening bass licks of Panic Attack and just watching the whole venue light on fire with enthusiasm. When you are in the middle of them, Dream Theater concerts are fast, relentless, impressive. Pretty damn metal.

But I didn’t get much of that excitement from the Score DVD. You really have to be there to feel the energy. The visual component of Dream Theater is the live shows, but it only works if you are actually there. It’s really something I can’t explain any better, the energy just doesn’t translate to recording. Watching the band do what they do best on DVD boils down to one succinct advantage. You can sit on your ass and watch the carnage. It’s just not the same though. Especially this concert. It’s just to well produced, too perfect to feel like an authentic, dirty, dark rock and roll show. And besides, if you aren’t actually there, what you will be watching from a DVD like this is just what the musicians are doing with their hands, and your mind could have filled in those blanks anyway. I guess you can say that about any band though. In any case, the DVD didn’t impress me that much.

For the music, Score is a real winner. You can’t argue with a thirty piece orchestra doing that much collective damage and sounding completely tight, playing with the worlds finest progressive rock band. It adds a whole new angle to the music. But for the DVD, save your cash unless you are a big fan. If you are a casual fan like me and want to relive the concert experience a little more accurately, there are better options. I enjoyed it, but not THAT much, not more than Budokan anyway. A good release from a good band that won’t please everyone.

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Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero

April 18, 2007

I wasn’t really expecting too much from this album. At all. It already didn’t have things going for it, considering there was only a two year gap between albums this time as opposed to the usual five or six, so one would have to assume that the product would be far less up to par than the other Nine Inch Nails that were so meticulously constructed over a long period of time. But really I think I could have thought the opposite too. With Teeth was good, and it’s best moments were very original, but it wasn’t quite up to par with the rest of Reznor’s discography and at times the motivation could have been calculated as a simple cash in after a really long musical break. I don’t know how long this took to make, but I can imagine it must have been under less stressed conditions and without many obligations. I do wonder if Reznor’s New Orleans mega studio was damaged during Katrina. Anyway, this has a lot of people talking. I wasn’t that excited about it when I heard four of the tracks had been released, two officially and two purposefully leaked by Reznor himself in flash drives carefully placed in bathrooms in venues on NIN’s current European tour. Trent is clearly outdoing himself on this album. Not only does he plan to release every song individually in garage band format to give fans a chance at remixing, but he has also has constructed an elaborate propaganda driven advertising scheme (see anotherversionofthetruth.com and then click and drag your mouse around the screen). The album is clearly themed, mostly around a fictional American future where the government and religion has complete organized control over the masses. Really, this doesn’t play into the music or lyrics too much, so no biggie. It sounds just pretentious enough to be annoying but it’s not. What is left to judge is the music itself, which in some ways was better than I was expecting but falters in some ways as well.

What I will say first is this is a much more interesting and progressive listen than With Teeth, which in some ways is good because it almost seemed like at times With Teeth was tired and burnt out as great as it was, and it borrowed a lot of it’s elements from it’s already sprawling predecessor The Fragile. Year Zero conversely is long, changes it up fast and often, and it establishes it’s own identity better. Reznor hasn’t changed his goals, but that’s good. He still tries to make very good industrial styled music driven by catchy synthesizers, adrenaline pumping beats, and sheer testosterone. What’s good about this is he’s still one of the few people in the business that can make industrial music without acting like a complete tool. The idea now is to be more electronic and less rock. What is convenient about this is Trent can do whatever the hell he wants on the electronic spectrum and still recreate his style with ease, this time without the grindy guitars and such. The beats are now much more toe tapping and the mood can change at a whim from the contemplative grooves reminiscent of The Fragile to electronic dance tracks almost rivaling closer. This is good. The versatility is appreciated.

The biggest problem I find with the music here is Reznor’s vocals. Not his voice though. Like Eddie Vedder, it seems that his voice hasn’t deteriorated at all within the last twenty years. And he is a very good vocalist for what he tries to do. His vocals here are simply mediocre at times. Instead of taking a more melodic approach like his earlier stuff, he now doesn’t seem to know what to do with his vocals and just kind of starts yelling a flat tone every once in a while. It doesn’t completely ruin everything, and it’s a flaw that isn’t too difficult to get over and look past, but it does leave a bitter taste in my, uh, ears. Me, I’m Not otherwise sounds like the most interesting computer glitch you’ve ever heard but is unfortunately kind of ruined by Reznor’s shot at hip hop styled vocals. A complete misfire. The vocals were actually the problem I had with the single Survivalism. This song is a grower, for sure. Reznor’s yells at first sound very ascending and aimless, but he is in fact hitting a note that wasn’t so apparent on the low quality early leaks. It’s a good song, but just not obviously. The album isn’t without it’s downright weak songs. They are mostly towards the last half of the album, and The Greater Good comes to mind as the worst.

But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the strengths are better than the weaknesses. There aren’t as many outstanding songs here as on previous albums, but most everything is at least good. After some consideration I’ve decided that Survivalism is worthy enough to represent the album, and My Violent Heart is the most catchy synthesizer line since Ruiner over ten years ago. This is an album worth cranking the volume on, but there are some recurring demons. Because the album progresses at such a quick pace, often times the best hooks that are worth hanging onto for the span of an entire song are left as interludes. Even the opening instrumental HYPERPOWER! is very good, as stupid as it sounds. And what Reznor has done is successfully removed himself from the introspective pain that he held onto for quite a few years with The Fragile and With Teeth. Once again, this is a very interesting album to listen to and hear develop, and it builds it’s own personality pretty damn well.

BUT. I’m not sure that it is better than With Teeth. Upon further listening things are opening up more and more to me, but in general this stands alongside With Teeth as being weaker than anything else in the discography. This is alright though, because it does have moments that justify it, and at times this can be downright compelling. And to be honest, Nine Inch Nails have never released a bad album. They do, however, have a hard time releasing an outstanding album. It’s still somewhat sleazy industrial music, and there really aren’t that many great songs, but like always the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts. But this album shows promise, it’s inevitable sequel is apparently already being written, and it makes for a fun and surprisingly good angry electronic album. Some people despise it and call it another blemish on popular music and other people are hailing it as a modern alternative rock opera. To be honest, it’s not nearly that bad but at the same not nearly that standout. When you listen to this, just remember not to take the brilliant marketing campaign into too much consideration when you decided how much you like this. If you didn’t like Nine Inch Nails in the first place this won’t convert you, but if you liked the “bands” earlier stuff than this is well worth getting.