Wednesday, 19 December 2012

City Spotlight: NYC - Part 1 of 3

Naam

While Naam's debut album definitely fits into the realm of doom metal, it would be unfair to pigeonhole them as a metal band. Just as much about psychedelia as heavy guitars, Naam displays no shortage of outside influences. Much of their stuff borders rock (with a stark classic rock influence taking root) territory and it's not like they've never done an acoustic based song.  



Escaping the bustle of Brooklyn, they went to a Cabin in the Catskills to record their self titled masterpeice. The album seemingly came out of nowhere - it was fully engrossing, encapsulating a perfect contrast between psychedelia and darkness, atmosphere and riffs. Between more substantial releases, they put out two wonderfully done Nirvana covers - considerably reworking the bridge to "Drain You" and putting a drug-ladden psychedelic spin on "Pennyroyal Tea". 


Their subsequent and latest release "Ballad of the Starchild" isn't such a far cry from their debut album. There is some essential tweaking that stops it from being a repeat offering; namely the introduction of warmer tones as well as an increased classic rock influence. The EPs opener "Sentry of Skies" is a sorrowful yet warm psychedelic folk song that really sees Naam exploring new territory. This EP also spawned Naam's first music video, which features the band playing on a cliff, plugged into a large pyramid shaped amp as well as some trippy shit I won't ruin for you.


Part of what makes Naam such a successful band is their fluid integration of influences. While they do draw on the tropes of different genres, they blend them in a way that is original. They have a unique sound and no qualms with experimentation. Hell, they even include a black metal inspired section in one of their songs. Heavy psychedelia seems to be making a comeback lately, and Naam are no doubt one of the best of this school. As an added bonus, they have some of the best facebook posts of any band I've seen. 


Saturday, 8 December 2012

Electric Wizard - S/T

No Hope, No Future, No Fuckin' Job

Electric Wizard's debut is often cast aside as a mere Sabbath clone. While doom metal certainly has it's fair share of Sabbath worship, it would be unfair to disregard this as a half-baked Sabbath duplicate. While the Sabbath influence is certainly there, just as it is on countless other doom records, Electric Wizard add their own flavour to a traditional sound. Calling this a Sabbath clone is just as silly as calling the majority of modern black metal no more than Burzum and Darkthrone clones (or saying that Autumn Aurora is no more than a Filosofem rip off). It has been often asserted that with their debut, Electric Wizard has not yet found their sound. This is only half true at best. While they do have their signature sound, it manifests itself in a more traditional setting the first time around. Their drugged-out vibe and slow infectious riffs are there, they just aren't pushed to the extremes that they would be in subsequent records. This isn't quite as heavy and sludgy as they would later become. Make no mistake, this still is damn heavy for a more traditional doom sound.

This album is pretty straightforward stoner doom, while they have their own unique subtleties, this certainly isn't far from what you'd expect when the name of the genre is mentioned. It should be kept in mind, however, that at this point the genre wasn't as well established as one might think. Sure, Sabbath had certain songs that exemplified the stoner doom sound back in the seventies, but it was only in the 90s that the stoner strand of doom started to really blossom as a sub-genre. Many people seem to forget how influential this album is for the time it came out. Every little subtlety on this album exemplifies a laid-back stoner vibe. This sound has become somewhat of an archetype for the genre. While taking some queues from  Iommi's riffcraft, they take a preexisting sound and adapt it into something new. 

This album is much more accessible and straightforward than any of their other records. While this does feature some relatively long songs, the songwriting remains to the point. These songs are catchy without coming off as overtly melodic. "Black Butterfly" is a prime example of the heights their songwriting can reach. Definitely the best track of the album, this song is one of the most memorable in Electric Wizard's discography. Although the album is almost always slow, a faster section is thrown into this song. This provides an interesting shift in dynamics and is quite a surprise upon first listen. "Stone Magnet" is also a track that stands out, featuring top notch songwriting and general all around badassery, something that is magnified greatly by the song's lyrics:

"Looking all around, the world's a dream
Traveling to places that I have never seen
High up here is where I'm really free
Listen people, you've got to free the weed

Yeah, you knew the deal
You knew I would make you feel
But look around you, what you got
No hope, no future, no fuckin' job"

 The riffs are simple, but do much more than merely get the job done. They're the type of riffs that refuse to leave your skull after the album's duration has come to an end. The riffs have a nice groove to them, which is an occurrence that remains throughout the album. The solos aren't really that much a far cry from what they are on later albums. Spaced out and bluesy,  they often start slow and crescendo to lightning fast pull ons and pull offs. This release does have occasional tinges psychedelia, with "Mountains of Mars" being the most prominent example of this. Otherworldly free-floating psychedelia is rooted by deep bass notes. This is something to drift off to in a daze. 

Often looked over as that Sabbath worship album they did before they found their sound, this record rarely gets the respect it deserves. The riffs are 100% killer, the songwriting is great and the overall vibe is something worth hearing. It's one of those albums you can really tune out to. This is much more than just a decent starting point for the band, it successfully achieves everything it set out to do. Sure, it isn't as experimental or crushing as some of their later works, but this album does a spectacular job at creating an outstanding sound in a more traditional framework.


Friday, 24 August 2012

Review: Dystopia - S/T

See The World Through Sunken Eyes


Dystopia are a difficult band to pigeonhole. Sure, you could try to label them as a crossover between crust punk and sludge metal, but that would merely be scratching the surface. They are one of those bands that wholly posses their own sound. Their self titled album is the final chapter in their abysmal, misanthropic existence. “An endless downward spiral of misery and pain” is part of a lyric on “Leaning With Intent to Fall”. These words seem to be an appropriate way to describe Dystopia. The band has always focused on negative – the inevitable corruption that plagues politics, drug abuse, domestic abuse, violence and suicide are just some of the unpleasant aspects of modern life that Dystopia dwell on. Their final release is as negative as ever; a deep-rooted hatred of society runs through their music. The band is able to channel that negative energy into something truly creative.

I actually was into Dystopia before I got into metal at all, for me they served as a gateway into the genre. When I first heard Dystopia (I was 14 at the time) I was really into punk, especially crust punk. When I mentioned my tastes, someone recommended Dystopia. I looked them up on the internet and I was immediately intrigued. For one, graffiti isn't something one would usually relate to crust punk. Dystopia had bleak images, as did most of crust punk, but they were doing something much more interesting and creative with those disturbing images. Upon first listen they were a bit more harsh than I was used to, but I quickly became acclimatized to their abrasive sound. This rough sound piqued my interest as to what metal had to offer. As I became more and more obsessed with the band, I learned that the looming release of the final record was to be soon. The band had already broken up and this album was recorded between 2004 and 2005, but was delayed until 2008 because of artwork concerns and whatnot. I soon picked up the album at a record shop in Toronto on clear vinyl, which to this day remains one of the most prized items in my vinyl collection.

This release's sound wavers a bit from Dystopia's previous material. For one, this album is better produced. While the production is not quite as abrasive as some of the band's earlier work, it is still quite a filthy affair. The guitars remain dirty and distorted, and the spirit of the music is as raw as it ever was. While the music is poignantly murky, no instrument is obscured or lost in the mix. The drums are especially well thought out, being high in the mix and produced with more clarity than the rest of the instrumentation. Strong songwriting is an integral component of this music, and like the drums, it does not get lost in the filthy mass that is Dystopia's sound. 

On Dystopia's past releases, both conventional and unorthodox songwriting was applied in fairly equal proportions. While songs like “Hands That Mold” and “They Live” feature pretty conventional songwriting (not to say that the instrumentation isn't experimental) songs like “Sanctity” and “Sleep” spit in the face of convention. The success of “Sanctity” is due largely to it's samples and it's intriguing bassline. On their final effort, the band relies largely on more conventional songwriting. This is no problem, as every song is carefully thought out and made with skillful craft. Dystopia are a band who experiment a lot and this album is no exception. However, that experimentation would be fairly pointless without this strong songwriting. 

Instrumentally, this is largely riff driven. While Dystopia have a penchant for repeating a riff for an extended period of time, they choose their riffs extremely carefully. The riffing is always memorable and hard-hitting. The repetition of the riffs is very effective, as it makes sudden riff changes, which often come with tempo changes, something very forceful and enthralling. For example, on “Illusion of Love”, the change between the fast riffing at the very beginning and the slow sludgy riffing that follows is an extremely effective way of making a dynamic shift that keeps the listener interesting. The fact that it comes after a fast grindcore section makes the sludge riffing all the more crushing. This album's riffs are almost exclusively rooted in sludge. These slow, churning monoliths of riffs are the meat of the record, proving to be an unbreakable backbone. 

The reason Dystopia works so well is that every element of their sound is interesting. Their rhythm section is no exception to this rule. As previously mentioned, their drums are much less abrasive compared to other releases – here they possess an almost organic quality. The drumming is generally somewhat minimalistic, which works well with the way they are mixed. Since the drums are high up in the mix, a constant bombastic fury might drown out the rest of the mix and prove to be a colossal headache. Fast aggressive drumming is included on this released, but it is reserved for the grindcore sections as well as the occasional fill. The fills are a large part of why Dino's drumming is so successful here. While the drumming is usually somewhat restrained, the fills are always well done and imaginative. They make sure the drumming never fades into the background. 

Dystopia have always used the bass as much more than a background instrument. In the past, Dystopia has used loud, fucked up basslines that were heavily distorted. Unfortunately that aspect of their sound is not too prevalent on this release. However, the bass is still put to good use; it does not resign to constantly following the guitar haphazardly. The bass is best put to use in the more atmospheric sections. As the often harrowing atmospheres linger, the bass provides interesting textures, furthering the sense of dark atmosphere while creating tangible (albeit often subtle) melodies to follow. This can be best seen in the intro to “My Meds Aren't Working”.

Much of the Dystopia's charisma lies in the chemistry between the two vocalists. Mauz's vocals are the deeper of the pair. This is by far the best they have ever been. Here his vocals feel more cavernous and ominous than ever. When he screams “See the world through sunken eyes” (a lyric that relates to drug addiction) on “Leaning With Intent to Fall”, you can hear the contempt for humanity in his voice. If Dystopia stayed together and released another album, it would not be a stretch of the imagination to assume that his vocals on that album would be a full blown death growl. Dino's voice is much higher pitched than Mauz's. His voice is filthy and raspy (although not in a way that relates to black metal), which perfectly fit in with the band's crust punk influences. On previous releases, his voice would sometimes end with a whimper, while however silly as that might sound, it was highly effective at portraying the pain prevalent in Dystopia's music. On this release the whimpers are completely omitted from the music, which while effective in the past, works out for the best here. The whimpers wouldn't work very well with this songwriting.

The album starts off with “Now and Forever”, a song that explores time and it's effects on politics and war. It's unlikely that Dystopia could find a better way to start this album. The slow build up that makes up the first three minutes of the song is one of the best releases of tension in metal since, well, ever. Samples run through this section of the song for it's entire endurance. The instrumental component of the song begins with only a buzzing dark ambiance. Eventually a bass line joins in, which, after some time, is joined by very slow and simple riffing which gradually grows louder and louder. When the devastatingly crushing sludge kicks in, the build up makes it infinitely more powerful than it could of been (that said, if completely removed from the song, it would still be really powerful). The atmospheric introduction to “My Meds Aren't Working”, which completely lack samples, is also very effective at building up tension, which this time is released in the form of a more mid-paced (yet still hard-hitting) riff.

Dystopia's use of samples has always been very effective. The sample's used on previous tracks such as “Sanctity” and “Love/Hate” were truly disturbing, and went a long way to portray certain negative aspects of modern society. The samples used on this album are (for the most part) fantastic. The samples that make up the first section of “Now and Forever” relate to time and it's impact on power and society, just like the lyrics. They are deeply political, very interesting and highly critical of society. The samples are layered, with one voice in the foreground. This effect adds atmosphere and depth. The samples end with “Humans have learned to split the atom. Instead of killing ten or twenty people with a board or club, one person can now kill a million by the pushing a button.” After that, one voice says “Do you find that frightening?” and the other says “Is that real change?”. The samples at the beginning of “Leaning With Intent to Fall”, taken from a documentary called Union Square, sounds like what you might expect in an episode of Intervention. It details a heroin addict's descent into his own personal hell. 


While the samples are a great addition to this album, they also lead to it's one and only real flaw. “The Growing Minority” is an interlude which is based around samples. The samples detail mental illness and the government's response to mental illness. While the track leaves a strong impression upon first listen, it lacks replay value. It is hard to deny that the track is disturbing and even hard to listen to at times. The main problem with it is the lady who starts the samples off by saying “I have to put a lot of effort into keeping sane”. Her voice is quite annoying and is not something I want to hear for nearly two minutes every time I spin this record. Although the track is initially interesting and definitely proves a point, it is ultimately replaceable. 

Wether or not you agree with Dystopia's politics and worldview, which is by no means subtle or moderate, it is impossible to deny that the band wholeheartedly believe in what they are singing. The lyrics are filled with misery and hostility directed at society. The band sings of hard times, which is a common lyrical theme in both sludge and crust punk. The band aims it's fury at people in power – business men, politicians and warmongers are all targets of Dystopia's rage. “Leaning With Intent to Fall” paints a harrowing tale of crippling drug addiction and it's effect on a person's friends and family. “Number One Hypocrite” points out many problems with American society. “Illusion of Love”, originally performed by Dino's previous band Carcinogen (their demo Kure is definitely worth checking out), points out the hypocritical nature of many Christian establishments. The first easily discernible lyric in the song is “Jesus, fuck your love”, proving Dystopia isn't exactly subtle in their lyrical approach. This album easily features some of the band's best lyrics:

“See the world through sunken eyes
Infected soul, Infected brain
Feel your flesh turn stone cold
An endless downward spiral of misery and pain is what remains

You used to do that shit for fun...

A steady march of slow death 
With no intention of turning back
Feel the pleasure, you taste the pain
Getting high just to get sick again

You don't seem to be having much fun...”

Dystopia's image is just as much a part of their allure as their music. Their aesthetic is deeply rooted in crust punk, but it goes beyond that. Dystopia is a band that always put a tremendous amount of effort into their packaging. While bleak imagery has always been a staple of crust punk, Dystopia's packaging is more than that. While bleak, there is much more than recycled pictures of the aftermath of war. Their designs are aesthetically unique, thought provoking, in-depth and more than anything, interesting. One thing that always intrigued me about the band is their use of graffiti. Their logo points towards neither crust punk or sludge metal. In the booklet they have a two page spread where graffiti is juxtaposed on top of a photograph of wreckage and barbed wire. The graffiti is composed of such subject matter as skeletons and organs from the human body. The inner parts of the vinyl disc features graffiti on both sides. The A side features a different graffiti logo with a fish-eyed view of skyscrapers. The B side features circular abstract graffiti, which I must say looks pretty damn cool once the record is spinning. Their use of graffiti aesthetically distances themselves from a generic crust punk look.

The booklet is a true achievement. On the vinyl version I have, the booklet that comes with the record is about two times the size of a normal CD booklet. The cover of the booklet is their usual logo with a couple cages filled to the brim with people. There is a reoccurring font in the booklet (which also makes an appearance on the back cover of the album) that really goes well with Dystopia's image. It is somewhat similar to a typical black metal font, perhaps a bit more legible. Bleakness is a recurring theme in the artwork (as well as the music). Even the two satire pages for “Number One Hypocrite” have dark undertones in the imagery. 

The pages in the booklet often relate to the songs. The pages for “Control All Delete”, a song that explores internet's effects on society and the erosion of privacy, is very clever. The artwork for the page that contains the lyrics is a computer screen. The lyrics appear on different pages that have popped up over the desktop. The page for “The Growing Minority” has a newspaper clipping titled “More mentally ill in jail than hospitals”. The page for “My Meds Aren't Working” particularly stands out. The artwork is a suicide note placed on a desk which also has some personal items on it – weed, a vandalized ID, car keys and medication. The lyrics are on the suicide note, and they read like the thoughts of a suicidal individual:

“My body still clings to life
Only my spirit is gone inside
I pray for death every night
But I Keep waking up alive

I cut myself for infliction
And I still spit at my reflection
I hate everything I am
I have my friends to thank for that”

The lyrics end with “I'm sorry if you know my name, I'll probably fuck up your life”, which is how an actual suicide not might end. While disturbing, this image perfectly embodies the lyrics of the song.

No discussion of the artwork would be complete without mention of the artwork. To be honest, this is probably my favourite album cover of all time. An enthralling collage of juxtaposed images, mostly people, this is truly an innovative triumph of graphic design. It features a diverse group of people from all walks of life on the top, many of them cheering. In the middle, there are three people joyously celebrating, who are juxtaposed in front of the Eye of Providence, taken from the dollar bill. Their logo is dead centre. The bottom half is just fucking wonderful, it features George W. Bush (or King George the Second, as bands in the crust punk scene often call him) with a bloody chain saw juxtaposed in front of rebels holding guns above their head. There are missiles on both sides of this scene. Words can't describe how brilliant the gritty vigour of this cover is. While being ripe with social commentary, it can stand alone as a wonderfully engaging piece of art.

The major complaint listeners have about this album is that it's too short. Many people have said that while the music is great, there simply just isn't enough of it. The thing is, Dystopia aren't really an album band. Technically, this is their debut album. Anyone who knows the band certainly wouldn't consider this Dystopia's first full length, though. The way that the band has previously functioned was releasing compilations that served as albums. 1994's Human = Garbage featured songs from an Ep of the same name (which is Dystopia's best work) and various splits. 1999's The Aftermath featured songs from two Eps (one being of the same name) as well as songs from splits. Releasing a long album is just not how Dystopia works.

This only features seven songs, one of which being a brief instrumental. Some copies have an untitled bonus track, which is made up almost exclusively of samples, but for some time features subtle sludgy riffs and almost tribal drumming. I actually wish more bands release albums like this. There are countless bands who could have turned good albums into great albums if they shaved off ten minutes of filler. It seems that bands feel obliged to have at least 40 minutes worth of material on their full lengths, even if that means including filler. Here Dystopia not only prove that short full lengths can be successful, but show that sometimes a shorter length should be desirable. 

It really is a shame that Dystopia broke up, but at least they went out with one hell of an album. This album is successful on multiple fronts; the songwriting is amazing, the flow is great, the production is well thought out and the artwork is just as jaw dropping as the music. Dystopia has managed to finish not only with their legacy intact, but with their legacy strengthened. The band is a huge inspiration to both the sludge and the crust scenes, and they no doubt deserve the respect they get. With their final release they cement their place as not only one of the most interesting bands in sludge and crust, but one of the most interesting bands in extreme metal as a whole.


97/100



Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Ides of Gemini - A Black Metal Aesthetic Without The Black Metal 




When referencing a genre, or in most cases a sub-genre or theme as genres grow to be too wide, there is more than a subset of technicalities a band must follow. A (sub)genre often possesses a certain aura. One of the most prominent vibes in black metal can lazily be described as "Burzumic". Obviously, this is a vast generalization, not every band that possesses this sonic quality has an obviously Burzum influenced sound and some may not be looking to Burzum at all for information - the reference is just a generalization that serves to give a general idea. This particular breed of black metal (which is pretty much the most prevalent vibe) is hypnotic, often fuzzy and atmospheric (even if the atmosphere comes from the distorted ringing of the tremolo picked riffs). 

Ides of Gemini's debut EP The Disruption Writ is intriguing because although it is undeniably not metal, let alone black metal, it gives me the same feelings as listening to a Burzum or Drudkh record would. It has that hypnotic, hazy vibe. No doubt Ides of Gemini are influenced by metal, seemingly doom as well as black. I see to remembered them saying that they were honoured to be on Neurot Recordings as they were all big Neurosis fans. While the black metal influence is overt on the tremolo riffing present on The Vessel & the Stake the simmilar vibe would remain even if tremolo sections were completely omitted from this EP. It should also be noted that the starting of the video I posted has an ambient section added to the start of the song, ambient is often used in black metal to create a sense of atmosphere, and here it is used in a similar manner. 

The Ep is not wholly unlike Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, although musically they are obviously very different releases, the vibe remains the same. That atmosphere, that feel is just so prevalent in both releases. It goes to show that a band does not have to go down a conventional route to attain a preconceived aura. Obviously this is an extreme example, the type of music Ides of Gemini is pretty freaking far away from black metal on a surface level, but dig deeper into the sonic landscape, and Ides of Gemini and Burzum aren't really that far off.


Monday, 13 August 2012

Song of the Week: Cursed - Promised Land




I remember getting Cursed's final album after it came out and being completely floored. While their previous albums where, for the most part, crusty hardcore, this one was different. It still held on to it's crusty roots, but also contained near-lethal doses of sludge. One thing that was intriguing about Cursed is, that although being anti-government, they still somehow managed to get a grant from the government to record the album. Perhaps this is due to the fact that their lyrics are largely in metaphors, which might obfuscate the meaning to people who aren't paying close attention (for example "Kill the Shepard, save the sheep", and that's one of the more obvious ones.) 

 I, of course, didn't know this was different than their other albums since III: Architects of Troubled Sleep. Intrigued by their sound, I picked up their first album on vinyl when I was in Toronto, at the fantastic punk record store Hits And Misses. This album was much faster, the band had it's origins in hardcore. This track was the first one to stand out to me, it was extremely short, yet extremely powerful. Featuring some of the best songwriting the band has ever managed, this song is absolutely lethal. The lyrics are just as good as the songwriting, detailing the false hope that Hollywood provides for wannabe stars. Yes, a highly clich√© subject, but Cursed provide a fresh spin on it:

you bought their lines and you staked their trail, followed their moves to the last detail.
and all that they sold you was death, on the five year plan,
and left you to rot in their promised land.
and what made you think that the life on the screen could be you?
no returns for your broken dreams when you get it home and it's not what it seems.
this is not the promised land.

Review: A Million Dead Birds Laughing - Xen

An Intriguing Swampy Sound


At first I wrote this album off as a step down from it's predecessor. I suppose this is because Force Fed Enlightenment is more immediately gratifying - it's more in your face and has more happening on the surface. Xen is a more subtle and congruent album. While the other album was all over the place (not in a bad way, mind you), Xen sticks to one overall vibe. A creepy swamp-like feel is maintained throughout the album. There are lots of atmospheric parts, and the doomy sections are expanded on for this release. This still has it's roots in grindcore and death metal, and it's still weird. It's just weird in a different way. 

While this album holds a much more consistent sound than it's precursor, it is hardly lacking in variation. There are lots of tempo changes, lots of atmospherics, a fair bit of technical guitar work as well as a good deal of straight forward riffs. A few well thought-out solos work their way into the mix, as well. While there are lots of different sections, including quieter parts, songwriting stands strongly at the forefront. Without strong song writing for the death and grind sections, all the subtle nuances would be for nothing, making this album come off like a dish with lots of nice spices covering up bad meat. However, the core of this album is solid. The slow doomy sections (doomy refers to the atmosphere, these parts are by no means doom metal) are integral to this album. Without them, the album would still be passable, but it would be missing intrigue. It is the contrast of the more aggressive sections with these abysmal dirges that make Xen so worthwhile. These sections where somewhat apparent on Force Fed Enlightenment but are much more prominent and developed on this sophomore.

Like their last album, this is available for free on Bandcamp, although you have an option of paying (which they totally deserve). On the page for this album, they once again have a quote: “(Insanity) is not hubris, not pride; it is inflation of the ego to its ultimate - confusion between him who worships and that which is worshipped. Man has not eaten God; God has eaten man.” Once again insanity, as well as other subjects related to psychology are apparent in the lyrics. They still go for some occasional metal trappings, but they go much beyond that. This contributes to this album's bizarre aura. While many parts are aggressive, the album as a whole feels more creepy and suspenseful than in your face. Xen begins and ends with creepy whistling. Starting the album this way lets listeners know that they are in for an unsettling journey.

Xen is the type of album that may take some time to grow on you, but it's well worth it in the end. While not the most orthodox affair, it is by far the weirdest (their first album was much more bizarre, for example). This perfectly displays a mix of conventional and unusual elements. The alien, swampy feel of this recording is quite engrossing. All of the different parts converge in harmony to create one coherent, intriguing sound. 

86/100



Friday, 10 August 2012

Review: A Million Dead Birds Laughing - Force Fed Enlightenment

Really Weird Grindcore


This album's sound is a hard one to pin down. A lot of grindcore and death metal (although this doesn't fit the standard deathgrind sound), some tech stuff, a few breakdowns and a whole lot of experimentation are a major part of this record's sound. On their debut, A Million Dead Birds Laughing are often unconventional. Despite their unorthodox tendencies, the songwriting never gets lost amidst the experimentation. 

While largely rooted in grindcore, just calling it that would be an absurdly false statement. For something with it's base in grindcore, this is very accessible. While the songs may not be very long, they are certainly lengthy for the grindcore genre. A very surprising addition to their music is the slower sections. While the drums often don't waver in their speed, the rest of the instrumentation does. These slower sections are doomy and feature very low clean vocals that almost sound like chanting in parts. Another interesting element to this album is the keyboard passages that appear to be orchestrally inspired. While this might sound a bit on the cheesy side, they are done well and are a constructive addition to the overall sound. 

A Million Dead Birds Laughing might be compared to the dreaded -core genres due to the stylings of some of their riffs and their inclusions of breakdowns. It would seem a bit silly to fault them for that, because they are a combination of many different metal sub-genres and the -core(ish) elements are well done. The simple breakdown near the end of "Void" is likely one of the catchiest breakdowns you will ever hear. While a minority of the riffs may sound vaguely metalcore-ish, who cares? They're done well, and in the end that's all that matters. 

Another way that this band deviates from the expected is in their lyrics. While one might expect a band of their nature to sing about evil and whatnot in a generic manner, they go beyond that. Sure, by the lyrics one could probably guess they're a metal band, but its hard to deny their lyrics have depth (well, maybe the section of "Forcefed" where "wakawakawakawakawakawaka" makes an appearance four times is an exception). On their facebook page, the only thing they list under influences is "human interaction". Much of the band's lyrics are abstract, deeply employing the use of metaphors. On their bandcamp page for the album (which they have available for free download) they list the quote "It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane". Insanity is indeed a prominent part of their exploration of the human condition, being a recurring lyrical theme.

For such a random mixture of genres, A Million Dead Birds Laughing do it remarkably well. While just the grind and death sections by themselves would still be a decent listen, it is the experimental tendencies that really make this album. When you mix this many (sub)genres, especially when the music is at this fast a pace, you risk the chance of being accused of switching things up so much just for the point of being random (which is the pitfall of many avant-garde bands). None of this is being random just for the sake of it, everything fits together. While this album is not for everyone, people seeking really weird grindcore may have come to the right place. 



83/100

A Look At A 1969 Black Sabbath Demo

The Rebel




This piece should prove very intriguing for those interested in Sabbath's backstory. Recorded in the transitional period that went from Earth to Black Sabbath, this does not sound like the dark, heavy blues that would become the starting point of metal. This track sounds very unlike the Sabbath we have come to know. It feels upbeat, even happy. While the lead guitar work is foreshadowing for what would come, this song has little to do with the doom and gloom Sabbath became famous for. 

Regarding the band's 1969 demos, Iommi had this to say: "We didn't write those songs. They were written by a chap named Norman Haines. At the time we were managed by Jim Simpson, who was a local Birmingham guy. He insisted that we record these songs. We just wanted to play, so we recorded them. We wanted to write our own songs and make our own record, but this was just an initial effort. We had never been in a recording studio in our lives before that." 

The most surprising element of this recording is Ozzy's voice. The unearthly wails he is known for are nowhere to be seen. The vocals here are pretty much a standard British classic rock affair. They certainly don't sound gloomy; they are not a far cry away from sounding happy, something that the backing vocals only make more blatant. Musically, this also standard classic rock. The somewhat cheesy piano intro makes it know that this will not be a particularly dark song. Besides the bluesy solos, the instrumentation is quite minimal, with the main focus being on the catchy vocals. 

Norman Haines, who also played with a band called Locomotive, not only wrote the song, but also performed on it. On the song, he plays organ and piano. A very interesting fact about this track is that it was produced by Gus Dudgeon, who is best known for producing many David Bowie tracks. While this is an early demo, the production doesn't let you know that. While not overproduced, it sounds like a quite reasonably produced classic rock song. 

The only foreshadowing of what's to come is found in Iommi's soloing. Much darker than the rest of this song, his solos are not much different than the style he would use on the band's first wave of albums. They are bluesy, imaginative and undeniably catchy, easily becoming the best thing about the song. The rest of the song is catchy classic rock, but Tony's lead guitar mastery really steals the spotlight. 

Anyone interested in the history of metal's founding band should give this a listen. While this is certainly not one of the most important Sabbath recordings, it is fascinating to see where the band evolved from. While this is much more poppy than you would expect from them, it is catchy in a very good sort of way. An essential song this is not, but it is good for what it is. 


Sunday, 5 August 2012

Review: Dopelord - Magick Rites

The Embodiment Of Stoner Metal Stereotypes

Dopelord sound pretty much how you'd expect a band of that name to sound like. The band is kind of like a b-grade horror movie - it's a bit cheesy, you know what to expect, but it's still a bit entertaining (if only because you're into that aesthetic). All of Dopelord's music is taken from the norms of the stoner rock/metal scene. The fuzzy, often bouncy riffs, the drugged-out hazy vocals, the long repetitive song structures - Dopelord are by no means pushing any boundaries or exploring new territory. They embody the stereotypes of stoner metal. 

On the stoner rock/metal spectrum, the riffs, although heavier than usual, generally fall on the rock side. The songwriting and structure adheres more closely to the stoner metal aesthetic. Saying the riffs are entirely rock based is wrong, there are quite a few examples of slow, somewhat sludgy riffing. However, many riffs and licks fall under a more catchy rock banner. A good number of these riffs, although extremely typical, are very well done. This band certainly has a knack for churning out catchy guitar parts. 

While Dopelord are very talented with orthodox stoner guitar work, their songwriting chops seem to have been lost in the haze. While not overtly monotonous, the songwriting isn't paid much attention to. What makes stoner metal songs like Electric Wizard's "Dopethrone" so amazing is that while it's comatose, crushing atmosphere is a dominating force, they wrote the shit out of that song - if it was stripped down to a basic rock song it would still be killer. It contains both style and substance. While it wouldn't be accurate to say that substance is completely lacking from Dopelord, it is much lower in the mix in comparison to style. 

They have the stoner sound down and they stick to it. A vague blues element, a mild dose of psychedelia, a critical dose of fuzz and a whole lot of stonerisms ooze their way into Dopelord's sound. They know their style and they don't wander into unknown territories. The only part of this album that wanders down a different path, although in the same woods, is the hidden track. Not particularly heavy, the song is pure psychedelia. Backed by acoustic chords, the track perfectly captures a blissed-out melting in the sun vibe. The drugged, murky vocals are a very important part of the band's sound. While putting them in the background is an essential part of achieving that hazy sound they're going for, sometimes (especially on "Ghost Cargo From The Bong") they are a little too low in the mix for everything to sound right. As this album is very samey, perhaps it could have been shortened by a track. However, if your in the right mood for their music, this is not a big problem.

While this album may be completely derivative, it's hard not to like it - if only just a bit. Sure, it doesn't add anything new to the genre, but that isn't to say they don't do a good job playing it. If the stoner sound is your niche, there is nothing to dislike about it. True, the songwriting could use a bit of an improvement, but this is hardly a hindrance to enjoying these fuzzy, narcotic-laden soundscapes. These guys exemplify many stereotypes of the stoner sound, everything from Electric Wizard (who are probably Dopelord's biggest influence, which should be obvious given the name) to Nebula is apparent as an influence. If your in the mood for some orthodox (albeit well executed) stoner metal, a little Dopelord should get the job done.

75/100



Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Song of the Week: Quest For Fire - Strange Waves 




This song is a rich source of both quality songwriting and otherworldly atmosphere. Slow and psychedelic, it weaves its way into your mind, slowly overtaking your perception. This song makes it seem like time is going by slower. Harmonica occasionally lingers in the background, adding a subtle country twang. The lead guitar is bluesy and draws you into it's aura. The songwriting is spectacular; however subtle, it is not something that shall soon leave your memory. This whole album takes you to another world, and this is one of the best songs.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Review - Warning: Watching From A Distance 

This Is Supposed To Be Polarizing?

Warning, and later 40 Watt Sun (featuring two of the same members), have made a big splash in the doom scene. Often Warning is heralded as pure brilliance, breathing new life into an allegedly stagnant genre. Others act is if Watching From A Distance is the single worst doom album ever released. For something so polarizing, this is really boring. An abomination against mankind this is not, but if you've heard one song off this album, you've heard them all. This is a supposed to be an emotionally hard-hitting homage to crippling depression, yet in the end it comes off as melodramatic and watered down. 

Although to some it must seem as if Warning came out of nowhere to take the doom world by storm, this is in fact not their first album. While not hugely successful, their debut was met with some limited success. It was generally regarded as a good but not great doom album. This album was from 1999 and lots of people eventually forgot about it. Warning was inactive for a considerable time as Patrick pursued acting. The band was eventually reanimated for a second album. While the seeds where certainly there, the first album didn't sound like the sophomore. One of the main difference, besides it not sounding completely the same throughout, is it had actual riffs. You know, the type that are somewhat convincing and hard-hitting. On their second offering, they would forgo riffs that actually feel like riffs in favour of atmosphere. The riffs, if you can even call them that, feel powerless and are utterly unmemorable. The guitar tone doesn't help things - it feels grey and flat. Not grey as in a way that embodies life-crushing depression and despair, but grey as in dull, monotonous and lifeless. 

The lack of real riffs could be forgiven if they were omitted in favour of an atmosphere that was truly wondrous. Much of atmospheric music is largely about escapism. At the risk of sounding wildly pretentious, I'm going to assert that listening to successful atmospheric music is somewhat akin to reading a good book. A good book can draw you into another world, supply you with temporary relief from whatever bullshit is happening in your life. For me, I find that atmospheric music can do the same thing. It can bring emotions to the surface and more than anything, it can divert your mind away from reality. 

This album is often compared to funeral doom, which is without a doubt one of the metal sub-genres most know for its atmosphere. Abstact Spirit's Tragedy And Weeds can bring the listener to a bizarre world far removed from whatever monotony that every day life may bring. Fungoid Stream's (look past the name, they're a very interesting band) debut has an ethereal otherworldly aura you can lose yourself in. Ahab's Call Of The Wretched Sea can make you feel as if your braving stormy weather at sea. Warning just doesn't have that quality of escapism - the music lingers there, but sometimes I almost forget I'm listening to it. The reason that it's often compared to funeral doom, besides it's attempt at atmosphere, is the lack of speed as well as the repetition. This recording is indeed very slow. While there surely are many funeral doom bands that are much slower, Warning come close. 

Being slow in itself isn't something I could possibly fault a band for. I'm a big fan of doom, including the funeral variety, and I like a fair bit of drone as well. Slow metal often has a tremendous amount of atmosphere as well as feeling crushingly heavy - in a very different way then, say, a brutal death metal band. It doesn't crush you with chaos and bombastic, unrelenting fury. It crushes you in another way, a way that has more to do with texture and feeling than technicality and brutality. Another way in which this relates to funeral doom is the lead guitar parts. While the lead guitar sound most associated with funeral doom has a slightly different timbre and vibe (this is prevalent on many albums in the genre, but Colosseum's debut would be a good reference point) it is still vastly similar. While not overtly displeasing, Warning's take on these leads yield no significant impact. They all sound very much the same, and grow tiresome over the course of the album. While funeral doom bands often are repetitive in just about everything, including lead guitar work, successful bands use this to their advantage by using subtle variation, using the repetition to create a potent atmosphere as well as crafting the melodies so that they are the type that one would not take issue with hearing over a long stretch. Many bands also switch things up from song to song. Warning, however, does none of these things, allowing the lead work to stagnate and therefore fail to capture the imagination or have any lasting impact.

The overarching theme of this album is depression. And I get it, sometimes you just need to feed the fire before things can get better - sometimes people who are down just need something they can relate to, something that lets them know they aren't the only ones feeling that way. This isn't to say that depressed people are the only people who listen to music that is dark, slow and dreary, not by a long shot. Obviously, many perfectly happy people listen to music in this vein, there are many talented musicians playing these styles and many interesting atmospheres to discovered. But it's pretty obvious that a depressed person can relate to it, and therefore would often be drawn to this type of music. A depressed person may also be drawn to making it, which the singer (who also plays guitar) obviously is, if his lyrics are any indication of how he really feels. Everything about this album bleeds depression, the lyrics, the sound - hell, even the artwork is a metaphor for depression. The album cover is done in shades of grey, depicting a man attempting to move up an incline, being hindered by a heavy weight on his back. 

The thing about this album depicting depression is that I really just can't see a person in the middle of a dark, crippling depression who feels that life simply isn't worth living actually being able to relate to this. Watching From A Distance simply isn't convincing. It doesn't come off as oppressing despair; it doesn't come off as a soul-crushing shroud of hopelessness. If anything, this comes off as dysthymia. For those who may not know, dysthymia is a form of depression that is long lasting and less severe than major depression. People can go years, even a lifetime without being treated, as its usually not bad enough to bring normal functioning to a complete halt. Many people just believe that it is just part of their personality. Sure, these long-winded song all have a dreary vibe, but can any moments evoke parallels with episodes of crippling episodes of severe depression? Not a snowball's chance in hell. And as for the long lasting analogy, its not specifically that the individual songs are long; many lengthy songs evoke a deep sense of despair. No, the thing about this album is that the whole thing might as well be one song, because everything sounds the same, and certainly not in a wonderfully atmospheric or a perception-alteringingly hypnotizing way. This is just one mildly downcast marathon of monotony. Rather than having intense, truly oppressing moments of anguish, this is just a long lasting slab of slight discomfort. 

The vocals are overwhelmingly this album's biggest detractor. When I was first recommended Warning, I was intrigued by the vocals. If for anything, the singing at least deserve credit for uniqueness. Patrick Walker has a very distinct voice. His voice is a very present force, it has a full sound, although often drifts into nasally territory. It's really bizarre, he often wavers between a relatively deep voice and a nasally voice many times in the same song.  There is this intangible element to his voice that is just slightly off. Even if all the nasally elements were eliminated, there would still be something strange about his singing. It doesn't help that he often goes a little over the top. Not in a power metal-esque theatric sort of way, but just in a way that you can tell he is giving it 110% when maybe he should show a little restraint. Although his singing isn't the biggest on variation, there are a few interesting vocal sections in "Faces" and "Bridges". These moments, however, are fleeting. He also has this annoying habit of getting his most nasally in these sections, which particularly does the music a disservice. In the end, his vocals are hard to enjoy for the entire endurance of the album. They don't make it unlistenable, but they certainly don't help matters. 

The lyrics are just as bad, if not worse, than the vocals. As an embodiment of true depression, as they are often portrayed as being, they are completely unconvincing. They come off as more 14 year old emo kid who just got dumped than an honest portrayal of paralyzing depression. Many of the lyrics are about missing a girl and being sad about it, which I don't really want to make fun of, but it does come off as a bit cliché. Most of these lyrics come off as more filled with cheese and predictability than with endless torment and true sorrow. Here are a few examples:

"I want to be master of my own emotions with a fire that fills me. But I don't understand myself, and I don't know what my heart is anymore."

"But I'm afraid of the way that I'm feeling, afraid of this new understanding now; afraid for the beauty within me,
and that which I hold within my hand. And this is the ultimate secret that many before me have ever known.
So capture me while I am weakest, I want to know, I want to know."

"It's always frightened me how some things lose their meaning, how some things change direction with a breeze."

Despite all the negative qualities of this music, the drum work is something that deserves praise. It perfectly goes along with the music, and feels like the only thing that emits any true feeling. Heavy on cymbal-work, the drums plod along at a slow pace, while always providing well above and beyond a mere adequate performance. There is always something more going on than just a standard beat. There are many fills, which are always well executed and often provoke intrigue. The drums have wonderful tone, feeling very organic. Unfortunately good drumming can't save bland songwriting and apathetic atmospheres.

While this definitely is not the masterpiece of modern doom it is often heralded as, it would be hard to deny that Warning are passionate about what they do. Many awful music is done with passion as a driving force behind it. I mean, surely no one can accuse Celine Dion of being apathetic towards her music. Neither the first album of Vulvectomy or Waking The Cadaver was born out of disinterest - the people behind the bands obviously believed wholeheartedly in what they were doing. It just happened that what they believed in so dearly translated into something that was largely over the top and in bad taste. When someone puts all their heart into a rotten idea, thats where truly awful music is generated from. Warning are a unique case. They are not truly horrendous, they are just mediocre. Music that is not horrible, but merely comes off as stale, is not something that is often the spawn of true passion. Unfortunately, Patrick's passion for creating a true feeling of depression didn't play out perhaps not in spite of his passion, but rather because of it. Perhaps in his attempts to paint everything grey, he lost sight of everything else an album needs to succeed. Maybe he focused so much on making the album feel as devoid of life as someone in the grips of major depression, he failed to recognize that one ingredient just won't do a convincing job. The album does indeed feel grey, it just comes up short of any real feeling, likely because the whole album sounds the same and ends up feeling more monotonous than depressing.

As much as I feel this album has many negative qualities, I find it hard to actively hate it. Just as many people act as if this album was made by God himself, many doom fans act as if this is the worse thing ever produced in the entire history of the genre (well for starters, Patrick's next band would prove to be infinitely worse). I think the reason many people feel like this is literally the worse piece of doom ever is because of it's popularity. I could see how someone would feel like it poses a threat to the equilibrium of the genre - what if they inspired an endless stream of clone bands? As for this band saving doom, that is just plain silly - doom was never in need of saving and even if it was, Warning would not be the band to reanimate the corpse. I still find it impossible to hate, listening to it isn't pure agony - its just there, not really doing anything. Sure its got a nice flow to it, which is probably why it's not that hard to listen to, but it has no impact. It's just the same thing for an entire album. While it is better than silence, it is only so by a very thin margin. 

It really is baffling that this is such a polarizing release. Sure, they have a somewhat unique sound, but it's not like they ever do anything with it. This is no Master Of Reality nor is it a Cold Lake. This is just a very boring album - nothing more, nothing less. 


Thursday, 26 July 2012

Review: Agalloch/Nest Split

True Collaboration Between Two Unique Bands




Your average split is usually nothing more than two bands putting songs on the same record. Often, the bands will have two very different vibes and this can sometimes make the split come off as not a cohesive listening experience. Not only is this a split where both band's sounds go together, it is a split where both bands are collaborating and giving the other band a helping hand. For this nature-inspired release, Agalloch provides both vocals and acoustic guitars for Nest's song. The artwork on the picture disk and postcards are done by a member of Nest. More than a split, this is a true collaboration.

The first side of the split is Agalloch's "The Wolves of Timberline". This release is the third and final small release for Agalloch that was put out between 2002's The Mantle and 2006's Ashes Against The Grain. This song has the nature inspired acoustic vibe of The Mantle as well as the winter atmosphere Ashes Against The Grain. The two previous releases between the two albums were not as well received as this split. The first of these two EPs was Tomorrow Will Never Come. Wile the guitar work was beautiful and the samples were very interesting on the title track, it was the other song that got this release a lot of negative press. It was called "The Death of Man (Version III)". It was a pointless third version of a song that was already captured well in two different contexts. The Grey was not well received due to its over-long songs and strange, abstract experimentation. The Grey showed a side of Agalloch that does not often rear its head (it would show again in the final song of Ashes Against The Grain.) Unlike the Grey, "Wolves of Timberline" has that classic Agalloch sound. While not sounding like a derivative of older material, it captures the essence of who Agalloch are. Agalloch are one of those bands who often experiment with different genres, but be it a metal or a folk song, they always had a unique aura around them distinct to the band.

This song is one of those tracks that evoke strong imagery. While listening, I can't help but picture heavy snowfall in a carnivorous forest during the dark cover of night. This is atmospheric acoustic guitar at its best. Simple, but not overly so, this draws you into a peaceful state of mind. Possessing a rustic feel, this would be perfect for hiking to in a snow covered forest or simply watching the snowfall while sitting by a fire in a wooden cabin. This type of folky instrumental has always been a part of Agalloch's sound, and was especially prominent in The Mantle. This may remind some of "A Desolation Song" or "The Lodge", and especially "Haunting Birds" off their EP Of Stone, Wind and Pillor. This is a sound that was further explored in the only EP released between the band's third and fourth albums, The White. The EP completely eschews metal in favor of folk and a bit of ambient.


Nest's song is a collaboration with Agalloch. The most prominent aspect of Agalloch's contributions is John Haughm's vocals. The vast majority of his vocals are a croaky near-whisper. The diversity of the instruments is one of the largest factors contributing to this song's success. Part of what makes Nest such an interesting band is the inclusion of traditional Finnish plucked string instrument Kantele. A didgeridoo lumbers in the background, setting the atmosphere for the whole track. The acoustic guitar solo is wondrous and majestic. This track is different from the majority of Nest tunes as in it has a strong songwriter vibe. While still very atmospheric, most Nest songs are long-winded, do not feature vocals high in the mix and have a very abstract songwriting approach. It is interesting to see Nest in a different setting, which they adapt to flawlessly. Nest member Alsak Tolonen who handles the artwork, has created the enchanting images for both band's sides. Agalloch's side of the picture disk features a rustic winter scene and Nest's side, also orientated around nature, has a wonderful and bizarre atmosphere about it.

Music needs more splits like these. Instead of two bands putting in their separate input, this is true collaboration. This is about as far as you can go without it being like Sunn O))) and Boris on Altar where the album was basically recorded as one band. This split has a cohesive sound throughout, and the songs feel like they truly belong together. They both capture the essence of the wilderness. This shows how well two unique bands working together can end up when they both share a common vision. The picture disk is absolutely beautiful, so it would be advisable to jump at any opportunity to own this.

96/100

Monday, 23 July 2012

Song of the Week: Man's Gin - Nuclear Ambition

God Be Damned When The Music's Over


To be fair, this is two songs. The reason I chose to present them as one is because, although different, they are meant to be heard together. Sure they can both stand alone as great songs, but they flow into each other, form both parts of an (abstract) story and share a chorus.

Erik Wunder not only has that undefinable spark that separates the great from the good, but he is able to translate that into more than one vision. Cobalt's Gin was fantastic, certainly a landmark for American black metal. It had riffs, it had atmosphere, it kicked ass while exploring new territory, but more than anything it was a breath of fresh air in a largely saturated scene. It was not only excellent, it was one of those rare moments where music can completely take you somewhere. 

Phil is in the army, so that means Cobalt can only record sporadicly. In his downtime, Erik has created Man's Gin, which is a completely different entity than Cobalt. Mixing bluesy americana with a fair helping of grunge, Man's Gin are also one of those rare occurrences where music can truly take you out of yourself.  This two-parter shows both the quieter side of Man's Gin and the more rock'n'roll side. The first side is mostly acoustic based, and much of it has a rustic quality about it. 

The second track is truly anthemic. It has an ass kicking take-no-prisoner style existentialist message. With great lines such as "Live and let die when your going nowhere, live and let live just don't work for me", "I wanna die in a concrete ocean, I wanna ride a neutron bomb" and "In a world gone wrong and I'm gone wrong too, yeah, God be damned when the music's over", this song packs one hell of a two thumbed (Thompson is definitely an influence for the lyrics) punch.