The Faint – Danse Macabre (2001)

Saddle Creek Records ■ LBJ 180
(Originally LBJ-37 on same label)
Released August 21, 2001
(This compilation released November 1, 2012)
Engineered and Produced by Mike Mogis and The Faint




Side One: Side Two:
  1. Agenda Suicide
  2. Glass Danse
  3. Total Job
  4. Let the Poison Spill from Your Throat
  5. Violent
  1. Your Retro Career Melted
  2. Posed to Death
  3. The Conductor
  4. Ballad of a Paralyzed Citizen

Though it ended up one of the most brief hiatuses I’ve taken, early June’s was instigated by a work-related trip to Council Bluffs, Iowa, which happens to be right next door to Omaha, Nebraska. I currently live in an area where there are barely handfuls of record stores for a good 60+ miles, so hitting a larger college town (like I myself used to live in) was a blessing and a curse: I flew back with a shoulder bag filled with vinyl, and a suitcase veritably lined with CDs. While there, I took occasion to visit the store that the Saddle Creek label operates there in their hometown, inspired more than anything by the associations it has with Cursive, a fellow fan of whom I discovered I was working with (who also shared a love for The Format and a handful of others–and ended up passing me a copy of Cursive’s The Ugly Organ on green vinyl!). While I was in there, I did walk out with a copy of Cursive’s I Am Gemini, having failed to pick it up already, and (rather amusingly) did finally get a copy of Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac, an album by a band from the area I last lived in, but thought I should really pick up a record the label itself put out (I Am Gemini being on CD). The Ugly Organ wasn’t there (and, as mentioned, I serendipitously acquired it later in the same trip anyway!), so I wandered about until I ran into this.

I remember around the time this album came out, the band was pretty darn hot around the internet, though I was still in my formative musical explorations. I did glance at them, but moved on before anything took hold, eventually picking a copy of the album up on CD many years later. When this edition was released, I first stumbled into the CD/DVD version last year, and suddenly realized I’d really missed something. That was what pushed me to add to it this vinyl version–it’s actually the “deluxe edition” which contains not only a second 12″ of bonus tracks (remixes and b-sides) but also that self-same 2xCD+DVD set I already have, albeit in far more inconvenient format for a portable medium.

When it originally came out, the record used a different cover, but the rights to use it were thoroughly rejected–even more than a decade later, which is why it continues to use the cover above. Though this new cover was used for the later pressings, for this deluxe reissue it was re-tinted in neon pink instead of its original blood red. It’s a weird colour, very eye-catching, and actually feels more appropriate in a strange sort of way–though the red, black, and white colour scheme of the original issue fit nicely with the cynical overtones of the record and its goth-y vibe, the pink hits on the fact that those are not the whole, and it’s a ridiculously danceable record (or so I would guess, being as I lack the skill at such activities, personally).

“Agenda Suicide” was the lead single, and in keeping with old habits (though maybe not The Faint’s or Saddle Creek’s), it leads the album. A low-end loop introduces the track with a kind of eye-wink darkness, rumbling along electronically through its set of notes, a palm-muted rattle of guitar from Dapose and then a pulsing four-on-the-floor drum machine beat are layered on top, finalized with actual drums, alternating snare and bass with regular hi-hat. Flavouring it all is a knowingly “off” set of notes from keys that seem to be poking at the outer edges of the sound, bouncing from one edge or corner to the next and then repeating. Todd Fink (née Baechle, though he was still Baechle at the time) pulls his voice out of the playbook from the goth-inflected post punk–think early Robert Smith, nervous, half-bored, very cynical–his verses are split by the sizzling keys that mark one of the track’s great hooks, leaning menacingly forward and more confidently spread across the track than the pulses and scatter of notes that precede them. The last time these chords strike down, the keys spiral downward to make room for the chorus: “Our work makes pretty little homes”, which is followed by the cold sound of drum machine thumping and even more mechanical guitar rattling. This leads to the full realization of those menacing chords, harmonized with a higher set of keys. The nihilistic, cynical, depressed description of modern societal monotony–“Agenda suicide, drones work hard before they die/And give up on pretty little homes”–is realized by the track, but it’s matched to an absurdly insistent, danceable beat that just makes you want to move and have fun, perhaps in spite of the repellent nature of the cubicle life described. The musical “interstitials” that split the chorus are later slowed down to a breakdown-like pounding that somehow turns the track into one that almost recommends headbanging, without ever losing that edge of life-sucking darkness it’s there to describe. Don’t mistake this of course–the track is descriptive and musically appropriate, but it’s finagled into the shape of a ridiculously enjoyable one, despite all of that.

In contrast to the building, hinting, and layering of “Agenda Suicide”, “Glass Danse” gives only a few beats warning before it launches full bore into its brash, loud dancey beat. It moves constantly and puts Todd’s voice behind an electronic device–something in the vein of a megaphone–that distances it from that straight up oomp-tss of the verse’s instruments. The lead-up to the chorus loses the filter between him and listener, doubles the beat’s speed, but closes camp around both, close to the ground and ready to spring, a launch that is fueled by the sputtering of metallic keys, which finally ignite and take off. Coming after “Agenda Suicide” it functions as a refusal to let the beat slow or drop in any way, while maintaining enough variety to keep things really very interesting.

“Total Job” takes that boiling heat and drags it down to a simmer, but a persistent one. The tempo is down, but the energy behind it is untouched. Todd and Jacob Thiele use the doubled tones of the metallic key sound to give the track the most clear and focal melody the album has in its first three tracks, while Joel Petersen’s bass makes itself more known than before. A chopped female vocal sample is sprinkled across the track, while Todd’s voice is given a vaguely demonic filter toward the end of the track–but only on a background double track of them. It functions mostly as connective tissue between the burst of “Glass Danse” and its nearby neighbor, “Let the Poison Spill from Your Throat”.

That follow up track is introduced with a frog-croak like keyboard hook and a clatter of drum machine that suggests a thin, demo-ish sound, except that it’s the lead in to live drumming from Todd’s brother Clark, and the croaking keys are now joined by a high-pitched whine of companion keys, which shift upward and tighten at their peak to drop the tempo back down. Stereo-pan right-left hopping drum machine and keys are the canvas across Clark’s frame of restrained drumming. Todd’s filtered, vaguely sarcastic voice drops to a whisper to lead in the chorus: “Just let the poison spill/Spurt from your throat/Hiss like steam–” and that anticipatory drop of everything gives the song back its initial roar of energy: “‘Cause the pressure’s unreal/I’m not saying that it’s not/You’re causing a scene/You’re wearing out that note/You scream until it’s gone, gone, gone…” It’s an apt lyric for the music–or apt music for the lyric. Like much darker electronic-focused music, it has tinges of the machine and the song is like a machine hissing out steam, until the pressure is released in the chorus. Fascinatingly, the song features a more raw bassline from Joel, and moments where Clark drums in isolation, while Todd’s voice is at its most distorted and altered. The downward strokes of that hook are, it seems, more unreal than the pressure to which the lyrics refer–yow, but they are catchy!

Unlike the CD release, the vinyl (both the original and this deluxe edition) place “Violent” at the end of side one as track 5 instead of penultimate track 8. “Violent” is actually the longest song on the album, the only one clocking past five minutes. Instrumentally, it’s semi-unique–while Gretta Cohn’s cello appears on “Total Job”, too, it’s most apparent here when it is alone with Todd’s voice and a drum machine. More keys and electronic sounds–cracking rhythms, shuffling hiss and rattle–hide in the corners, but even when the song shifts gears and Todd’s voice goes “Transformer”, Dapose, Clark, and Joel remain rather silent–Dapose’s guitar does appear briefly as a short lead after this, but disappears after a few bars again. Clark’s hi-hat playing does come in a bit before the song attempts to tear itself apart, stuttering, starting, stopping and shuddering before returning as a skronking low-end key line. It’s joined by a fuzzy industrial metal beat and hi-hats that all skitter like a skipping CD until they become a single repeated beat. Then it all comes back together as a song centered around that grungy, bassy keyboard lick, with sustained horror-esque high-pitched keys carry a haunting melody in the background in keeping with the slow, low strains of cello. It only makes sense, I suppose, that the longest song be, in effect, a pair of songs smashed and converted into a single one.

Side Two opens with another scorcher, “Your Retro Career Melted”. An odd choice, in a way, for a band that is openly and obviously drawing from the past–but sung with enough venomous sarcasm that it manages itself quite well. The horror and sci-fi inflections continue with a squealing hook of keys around the pounding beat that blends so well into the primary keyboard melodies. The catchiest chorus and use of electronic voice filters by far, “Your retro career m-m-m-melted” is repeated over a tireless beat. Squealing and stabbing keyboards get to back Todd and Clark for a moment, just before the chorus returns for its last run, before stretching out over the last few minutes, ending with the electronic filtration of a bell-curved singing of “Melt-e-e-ed…” closes it all.

“Posed to Death” is rather strange, coming on like a vaguely tribalistic set of non-verbal vocalizations over a  2-and-4 beat, but Clark’s entrance turns the thumping keyboards Todd’s voice is mimicking into a back-and-fourth full four beats, until Todd steps back for Joel’s bassline. Now the beat is a body-moving of a 1-a2-a3-a4 swing. Distorted keys crunch away and leave a wash of disttortion in their wake, a wall of static behind the song’s hypnotic beat. It closes with Dapose harmonizing his guitar with the keyboards, a new sound for the record.

“The Conductor” has a fantastic intro: keyboards attuned to the slight fuzz of distortion on a sound somewhere between xylophone and piano, let ring just long enough to mimic an echo, hints of harpsichord-like twang making it almost like a moment of suspense in a mid-period horror flick, before a funereal beat backs an expansion of this marching melody, flattening with the weight of the louder, fuller chords of ominous, 80s-horror threat. Percussion backs this and turns it–without changing the melodic portions–into a dance movement. The song is haunting and dark in a new way, shadows and the kind of darkness that could be a room, a large room, or even open space. When Todd takes over the verse completely and his voice takes the fore–takes control, if you will (as he himself sings)–it becomes something closer to the merely dark-edged crunch of the Faint’s usual sound. It’s fuzzed by Joel’s bass, spiced by blistering Dapose leads, and propelled by keyboards–the chorus fades it away to keys, drum machine and Todd’s voice repeating “Control, control, control, control, control…” The bell-like xylopiano of the intro lingers over it all, keeping it haunting and mysterious, even more so as the beat drops out from under it to let it play alone and fade off.

Gretta Cohn’s cello opens “Ballad of a Paralyzed Citizen” almost alone, and where it’s flavoured by keys, it is only that–flavour on her strong draws of bow. Then the jittering of a pounding beet against a sheet of metallic noise carves out a mechanized chunk of the track, tailed by a wobbling fuzz of grungey keys. It’s the most downtempo and downbeat track on the record. The beat is the strongest, clearest part of the primary band’s sound (Cohn acting in a secondary role, after all), with Todd’s voice again hiding at a distance, and even the keys burbling around Clark’s drums. For all the interesting layers of sound, it’s a sparse-sounding track in contrast to the uncontrolled burst of movement that composes the rest of the record. Certainly, this makes it rather fitting as a final track, though instead of the misleading final fade of piano and cello, distorted keys take the final moments for their own.



Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Take Me to the Hospital
  2. Mote
  3. Dust (featuring Bright Eyes)
  4. Falling Out of Love at This Volume
  1. The Conductor [Thin White Duke Remix]
  2. Glass Danse [Out Hud Remix]


Sides 3 and 4 are a collection of tracks from various places (a Saddle Creek compilation, the Mote/Dust non-album single, the remix album, the German version of the “Agenda Suicide” single, and the original German limited edition 2CD release of the album). “Mote” is a Sonic Youth cover, while “Dust” features “Bright Eyes”–aka Conor Oberst, a former member of the Faint, and Mike Mogis, who co-produced Danse Macabre. “Falling Out of Love at This Volume” is indeed a Bright Eyes cover, and “Take Me to the Hospital” is the only “completely Faint” track (the other two obviously being remixes).


Sadly, “Take Me to the Hospital” is not a misnamed cover of the Replacements’ “Take Me Down to the Hospital” (which I’d still like to hear them cover, just for curiosity’s sake). It is actually an interesting, stuttery track, that doesn’t quite have the slick goth-inflections of Danse Macabre, but has a stammering dance of a chorus that spells out the final word of the title. It’s a bit more intimate as a track, and points a bit more toward the group’s other work.

“Mote” is fuzz-loaded, with squeaky-tape rewind noises and pounding beats, perhaps the closest relative of the album proper to appear amongst the bonus tracks, barring the remixes of tracks actually from the album, despite being a cover.

“Dust” is a little more akin to a Depeche Mode-style dance music, with the kind of chunky synths that are so recognizable, but built on live drums. There are Faint touches for sure, but it’s mostly more readily accessible and cleaner than Danse Macabre.

“Falling Out of Love at This Volume” is odd, as, despite his former membership in the band, Oberst’s music is not in keeping with the rest of the Faint’s sound, but the band predictably “remedies” this (as would be almost inevitable in a band that is more keyboards than guitars). Interestingly, the over-echoed, watery effect on Todd’s voice does bring it closer to the demo-style recording they’re covering.

Thin White Duke’s remix of “The Conductor” is a severely re-designed version of the track. It moves to a more standard dance beat, and Todd’s electronically manipulated recitation of “Control” forms the central hook of essentially the entire song, even being layered over itself in various iterations, almost to the exclusion of the rest of his words. It’s something like the expectations of remixes, but it’s very much well done, even with its humourously stereotypical inclusion of strings.

Out Hud’s remix of “Glass Danse”, in contrast, is only subtly different from the original track, functioning closer to a remix in the “remixed and remastered” sense than the “make it their own” one. Of course, I cannot help but mention that I know Out Hud primarily for the fact that they did an early split with !!!, a band that actually shared three members with Out Hud at the time. Heck, that split was released on Gold Standard Labs (GSL) who released not only !!!’s first album (the self-titled !!!), but also the Mote/Dust Faint single, and a few records that will appear later in my collection–as a label that was co-owned by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. It’s still a solid remix and they do make it somewhat more their own as it progresses, and in doing so actually keep it more like a Faint song than Thin White Duke did with his remix.

I bought this album very deliberately–it’s insanely catchy, particularly in its first half, but spread (and paced) nicely across both sides, or its full (CD) length. Finding the right space to suggest this, as a goth-tinged, crunchy dance album–I don’t know. It was pretty big in its time if I’m not mistaken, but to whom I would recommend it unwaveringly, I’m not sure. I mean, I’d recommend anything I like to anyone, because it’s all good music, but the taste that would make me say, “Ah, listen to the Faint!”? I don’t know.

Perhaps you should go and check it out (you should), and maybe return data so that I can assemble knowledge of what that taste is.

Or just check them out regardless (yep).

Alejandro Escovedo – Real Animal (2008)

Back Porch/Manhattan Records ■ 50999 5 824111 1 9

Released June 10, 2008

Produced and Mixed by Tony Visconti
Engineered by Mario McNulty
Assistant Engineering by Tim Price
Mastered by George Marino


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Always a Friend
  2. Chelsea Hotel ’78
  3. Sister Lost Soul
  4. Smoke
  1. Sensitive Boys
  2. People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long)
  3. Golden Bear
  4. Nuns Song
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Real as an Animal
  2. Hollywood Hills
  3. Swallows of San Juan
  4. Chip n’ Tony
  1. Slow Down
  2. Falling in Love Again
  3. I Got a Right

I could completely obscure how I know the name Alejandro Escovedo, but that would really just be disingenuous, wouldn’t it? Truth be told, he does a duet with one Ryan Adams on Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac–one of my favourite records in the world–on a track called “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight”. A snide reviewer once noted that Adams’s music was inferior and a listener might be better off with Escovedo’s, seemingly unaware of this connection or, I later found out, a bit of a friendship between the two. That interview was what really pushed me to check Escovedo out for himself: in it, Adams said Escovedo shared an “outsider’s” perspective on love, being less defined by it than most and thus able to record it that much more acutely, in a strange way. He mentioned a song (“She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”), referencing it as astonishingly sad and evocative emotionally–which was something that appealed to me a lot in Adams’s stuff, particularly that which he did with Whiskeytown.¹

I was out on a business trip in Iowa and Nebraska, which meant a lot of trips to the record stores in Omaha, where I found quite a few things of interest (to the point that I started to stress the space I’d quite deliberately left in my luggage for music to come back with me). One of those “things” was Real Animal: Escovedo’s third-to-last album at the time (back in June this year), on sale and predating the CD I’d picked up just previously but not much listened to (2010’s Street Songs of Love).
Between his appearance in Whiskeytown and his solo-named recordings (though he apparently also works in and “as” a few bands like Buick Mackane and Rank and File, as well as being in other bands over the years), I already had an itchy feeling this was an artist who would appeal to my father (who provided me with my first Whiskeytown album), and the fact that he’s from Texas–like my father–just furthers the notion. Even if he is associated most with Austin, the most atypical of Texas cities. Listening to the record (and being pushed by it into finally giving Street Songs of Love some spins), I’m still left pretty strongly with that impression–though there’s plenty of chance that he already knows him.
Anyway, the record starts with a nice rocker of a track, and possibly (maybe) my favourite on the whole record: “Always a Friend”. It’s a stuttering, staccato, jerky but warmly toned lone guitar that is suddenly embraced by the much softer tones (but voluminous and bright) of a string section and the rest of Escovedo’s band. “Wasn’t I always a friend to you?” Escovedo asks, then repeats it, his voice rising on the last two words this time. It’s a some what self-deprecating character: “I don’t care if I’m not your only one/What I see in you, you see in me/But if I do you wrong/Smoke my smokes/Drink my wine/Bury my snakeskin boots somewhere I’ll never find”–the list comes out a capella and half-spoken, before the punchline comes, emphatic and frank: “Still be your lover, baby!” It’s not that he seems to shrug at these things, or plead, or anything so much as state the facts of his case: she can do wrong, so can he, it doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s the two of them, no matter what. A bit more realistic, perhaps, than most works that operate on that notion, and a damn fine song for that fact.
Escovedo begins to touch on his punk history (he was in the Nuns, one of the bands that opened for the Sex Pistols’ final show) with “Chelsea Hotel ’78”–in which he indeed lived at the time. He ties it, of course, to fellow occupants of that hotel, most especially the most famous of the time: Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Throbbing riffs sit uneasily beneath his descriptions of a near-mythological time and place, until they culiminate in a half-shouted chorus shot through with the sound of hands thrown into the air–“And it makes no sense/And it makes perfect sense…” He has probably tied bits and pieces of that time together in ways that don’t match reality, but that is only that much more sense (ahem) considering the song’s overall tenor.

Finally dropping the mood if not the tempo, “Sister Lost Soul” is another excellent run: a very 60’s intro of pounding drums punctuated with an emphatic and loud snare hit that is let ring and echo for just a moment gives way to a much less dramatic and loud set of verses. Escovedo’s voice is calm and easy, describing the world in dark but fatalistic terms: “Nobody left unbroken/Nobody left unscarred/Nobody here is talking/That’s just the way things are.” He manages to sneak in one of my favourite images ever, too: “And all the neon light reflecting off the sidewalk,” before closing it with the line that defines the need for the song’s pleading chorus: “Only reminds me you’re not coming home.” In contrast to the raw confusion and chaos of the prior track, the pleas of the chorus stretch and wave across Escovedo’s voice: “Sister lost soul/Brother lost soul/I need you…” the economy of syllables letting that much more emphasis rest on each.

Apparently uninterested in letting an album that references his past slow down too much, “Smoke” is another chunk of rawness, riffing, and steady up-tempo drums. A blazing guitar lead winds its way across the top, riding high on bends and little twists and turns of the primary riffs and melody that are cool and familiar in that purely “rock” sort of sense. Susan Voelz contributes her violin to the track in a way that seems to glue the guitar to the rest of the track that much more perfectly, be it the lead or rhythm. They blend and blur around each other, following in such a way that uncareful listening can easily lead to the conclusion the violin is just a strange sound of playing from the guitar.

The second side of the record finally drops not just the mood but the tempo–perhaps logically, with a title like “Sensitive Boys”. Hector Munoz’s drumming doesn’t really shift into light playing, just lighter–there’s no betrayal of the record’s rock leanings here. The tenor of the song is fascinating: it’s a mix of poking fun at the excesses of the “sensitive boys”, pining for their return, and just a touch of nostalgia given away when “they” becomes “we”. There’s a nice, appropriately quiet wash of noise when he sings, “Turn your amps up loud”, conveying the idea without overtaking the song, and managing to weave it in correctly. One of the most full instrumental sections on the record, the arranged strings dart in lightly here and there, and an organ-styled keyboard underpins it all with sustained chords. Brad Grable contributes his only sax tracks, with both a baritone and a tenor, taking on a solo to follow the relaxed but confident guitar one. It’s breezy, reminiscent of both rock balladry usage and the romantic kind–but not in that uncomfortably saccharine style, which may be where the song most benefits from its unusual tone.

“People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long)” has a great swinging gait: Munoz’s drums groove and rock back and forth, while Voelz’s violin draws the low-slung lines connecting the beats, guitars traveling in jagged zigs along that same line. The whole track nearly stops for the chorus’s final repetition of “We’re only gonna live…” to let Alejandro clarify: “We’ve still got time…/But never quite as much as we think”. It’s not a warning, though, so much as paean to people in general, which he finally states at the end, giving a small list of types of people that the track fades out on, mentioning that he loves them.

Producer Visconti brings back the synthetic strings he previously used in David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” in “Golden Bear”–that slight warble of high-pitched faux-strings, though with a much less central place in the track. Where in that track it established itself immediately as an auditory focal point, here it is just an accent on the more “standard band” framework of the track, though guitars are split between palm-muted and tightly played notes and sweeping pedal-reverbed open chords allowed to ring. The tightened corners of the verse are let slip completely for a cavernous unanswered question of a chorus: in the background, the rest of the group sings “Golden bear is burning down” in a crowded muddle that doesn’t emphasize the words and instead forms a bed for Escovedo’s drawn out rhetorical question: “Oh…why me?”

If you’ve been paying attention, the reason “Nuns Song” is titled what it is should be no surprise–and no, it does not have to do with the kind of habits that go on heads. The intro is spare and sharpened: pounding, barely restrained drums and tightly wound guitar repeating as Escovedo sings in his past: “We don’t want your approval/It’s 1978/We know we’re not in tune/We know we’ll never be great…” A few more lines and that great call: “Kill it!” Alejandro yells, not to be heard enunciating by listeners, but to kick the band into gear–hey, even if the vocals were recorded last, doesn’t matter–and the restraints drop, Munoz pounding and then running across the toms to open the band, guitars wailing, background vocals more literally doing the same as they rip into the chorus. Now coiled again, the band is still more complete with strong violin laid across the top, lightly tapping keyboard lines (from Visconti, this time) and more present bass. When the chorus opens up again, it doesn’t have that great kick into gear, but a different kind, as it gives way to a buzzing and wild guitar solo. Much like “Chelsea Hotel 78”, the final portion of the track is chaotic lyrically, vaguely bizarre, but evocative–and backed by a searing, seemingly uncontrolled guitar solo that is eerie, unexpected, and yet entirely right.

The album doesn’t quite have a title track, but “Real as an Animal” is pretty damned close. A Stooge-like pounding, rocking intro doesn’t really lose its energy when the chorus hits, Munoz pounding on skins like an animal (perhaps even like Animal, now that I think about it…). Were it not for the more Americana-inflections of the chorus, this could easily have been a well-produced proto-punk style track. The chunky riffs and melodic rises are highly reminisicent, but that chorus (“La la la la yeah, animal…”) and its backed vocals give away the secret. Escovedo wrestles even the chorus back almost, though: he sidles the melodic vocals most of it uses into shouts of the song’s title, punctuated and clearly delineated words–“Real. As. An. A-ni-mal,” repeated as if a mantra to let his punk past restake its claim on the song.

Quite unexpectedly, “Hollywood Hills” has an intro of nothing but arranged strings that contrast fully with that previous track’s sonic struggle. When Escovedo enters, it’s only with clean guitars, and mostly solo strings. More strings join these sounds and make way for the chorus, which seems designed to fill out the song with grand declarations and the movement of a moment a chorus of voices would join: “Happiness can’t be bought or sold/You shared what you had/But you gave me your love…” It’s the kind of (rather mild, to be fair) crescendo that doesn’t betray the acoustic inflections of the track, but builds it up despite that. Somewhat naturally, it closes with just Alejandro and guitar again, fading naturally with quieter singing and playing, with a thoughtfully placed keyboard chord lightly dropped at the end as punctuation.

“Swallows of San Juan” opens with its chorus, and neatly defines not only the lyrical content but the song’s own feeling with its final lines: “Like the swallows of San Juan/I’m gonna get back…someday.” That present nostalgia, the kind of distant declaration that has only emotional weight behind it, no plans or clear intentions to arrive at it. While “Hollywood Hills” is more delicate, “Swallows” may be lighter, with its sustained keyboards and strings, an easy, tired gait–that wistful look backward that is backed by the conviction of nostalgia and real desire to return.

Semi-rockabilly drum pounding gives away the feel of “Chip n’ Tony”, which saws back and forth across the 1&2 3&4 thumps of Munoz’s drums. Even where the guitars fade back to make room for Escovedo’s voice, Munoz is relentless, giving the tracks just a little tinge of that Bo Diddley gait without really quite reaching it. It’s the kind of track that calls out for hand claps in its way, but smartly avoids them in this particular recording–it would have cut through the aggression of the track inappropriately, as the approach of this band and Alejandro’s voice already slices off just the right sliver of aggression to keep it friendly, and anything more would drop it into the wrong place.

“Slow Down” does exactly that: one of the handful of downtempo tracks, it’s quavering guitars and languorous pacing. Plucked strings tinge it with something brighter than the down-trodden tone of Escovedo’s singing. It’s the culmination of everything from before: “”Slow down, slow down/It’s moving much too fast/I can’t live in this moment/When I’m tangled in the past”. All the recitations of memories past, of life lessons and influences we’ve been played on the prior three sides are all the tangles of life Escovedo himself is reliving and reciting, trying to find his way to the present–a present that, in fact, was something new, in its way, to him. Not long before this, after all, he’d been ill enough hepatitis-C (incurring even a tribute album to cover medical expenses) to leave the present and future a question. All of this makes it the perfectly logical conclusion to the album–which it is, on compact disc and most digital formats.

However, exclusive to the vinyl, we have “Falling in Love Again”, a quietly romantic song, with flecks of passion infused into it. It’s an interesting and appropriate coda to the record, as if it is the epilogue announcing and explaining the search for the present and finding a place in it, maybe even a momentary cause for sifting through the past for the moments that are held and retained. It’s one of the more unique vinyl bonus tracks, in that it is simply not to be found in any other format I’ve ever seen–no compilations, singles, promos, digital releases [unfortunately for more portable formats, there’s not even a digital download included with this record] or anything, it’s only here.

More appropriate as “bonus” and “exclusive”, we close out side four with a cover of Iggy/The Stooges’ “I Got a Right”. It’s one of those historically muddled tracks, as the career of Iggy goes–the Stooges were recently dissolved, his drug addictions were short-circuiting his career, and he hadn’t yet left with Bowie to record his breakout solo records (most famously, I suppose, Lust for Life) when it was released, but it had been recorded years earlier anyway, and was one of many stop-gap releases attempting to keep his reputation (and sales…) alive. It was originally credited to “Iggy Pop and James Williamson”, the latter being the latter-day Stooges guitarist who entered after 1970’s Fun House, pushing former guitarist Ron Asheton to bass, and who then came to define much of 1973’s Raw Power guitar sound (the record being originally produced by David Bowie). As such, it may be the perfect choice to follow discussions of the past and their interminglings with the future, by revisiting the time more completely in covering a song from the early 70s, though one released near the end of that decade. Escovedo and crew do it serious credit, with Alejandro straining his voice to reach the snarling sneer of Pop while not giving up his own identity, and Visconti’s strings (!) enhancing the track in an unexpected way for such a raucous classic.

Other than my brief “cameo” introduction, this was my first experience of Escovedo–certainly, then, my first experience of him as solo artist. I’ve begun to gather many more releases in the time since then, including Bloodshot Records’ release of A Man Under the Influence: Deluxe Bourbonitis Edition, which has a number of compilation and EP tracks attached in a similar fashion to those attached here, but does make them available for download (or at least, four years after release, did so for me after a quick e-mail–a service that renders me grateful and interested in dropping that little plug!). I’ve found myself revisiting a number of tracks from this release in the near-month since I first started writing this entry, before being delayed and distracted by work and the social attachments that come with it. I am definitely glad to have made this trip, and for the number of re-listens that drawn out writing time has given it. This is a damn fine rock record, which I heartily recommend checking out.

¹That interview, which is with both artists, is here on No Depression’s site (of course), from right around the release of Strangers Almanac, which, incidentally, I gushed over at my old blog. It has gotten interesting attention–the author of a DRA biography commented on it and has linked to it (!), and Caitlin Cary herself found it apparently rather flattering and invigorating, it seems (if, apparently, deceptive in its impression that they had carefully plotted the album or anything like that).

Emperor – Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise (2001)

Candlelight Records ■ Candle064LP


 
Released October 23, 2001

Produced by Ihsahn
Mixed by Thorbjorn Akkerhaugen and The Emperors
Mastered by Tom Kvalsvoll and The Emperors


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Eruption
  2. Depraved
  3. Empty
  4. The Prophet
  1. The Tongue of Fire
  2. In the Wordless Chamber
  3. Grey
  4. He Who Sought Fire
  5. Thorns on My Grave

I’ve only touched on black metal here once before, and that was a rather curious and unique example of the genre. Diabolical Masquerade are not at the forefront of most minds when naming bands that fit the bill for the genre–more likely, you will hear Immortal, Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone–and Emperor.

I picked this album up from the sadly defunct store Musik Hut in Fayetteville, source of not only much of my metal from years past (on vinyl or otherwise) but also of my “black X” collection, and even a few other oddities indicative of how odd that store actually was. It was intended as a metal/punk/industrial store, but did carry plenty of other and “normal” stuff.

As with much of metal (other than Morbid Angel and Decapitated, and a handful of others)–such as At the Gates–even the classics (like Emperor here) were introduced to me by a single soul, to whom I tend to give credit for most of my metal awareness. He and I still talk metal now and then, of course, but also the odd other chunk of music, since neither of us is married to it in exclusivity.


When I bought this record, I don’t recall what else it was I was considering purchasing with my then-limited funds, but I recall Bob, owner of Musik Hut coming outside to inform me during deliberations that this was more likely to disappear and was, thus, the better choice at the moment. It was also a part of my occasional (weird) habit of completing my collection of an artist or band’s discography via part vinyl, part CD approach. I still have (after a few sales and purchases for expanded and fancier editions) Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, IX Equilibrium, and In the Nightside Eclipse on CD, and still don’t have any on vinyl, nor this album on CD. It does mean that, for reasons of time and convenience, this is the album I have listened to the least–there is no song I know immediately like “The Loss and Curse of Reverence”, “An Elegy of Icaros”, or “Into the Infinity of Thoughts”. It helps nothing that Emperial Live Ceremony was recorded and released before the album, so no songs got doubled exposure, either.

It’s making this a peculiar and semi-difficult review: I have never had strong feelings about the album, nor have I had the chance to develop them. Beyond that, black metal is an extraordinarily acquired taste, or so I’m told–many have commented on the breadth of my peculiar tastes, so apparently I’m not overly qualified to comment on that aspect. Indeed, I was perfectly pleased with the first black metal I remember hearing. I’ve known many metal fans, though, who do find it impenetrable. And it’s understandable, I guess, depending on where you come at it from–earlier Emperor (e.g. Wrath of the Tyrant) would give me a headache if listened to in headphones, but that was less a result of the music and more a result of its awful production. Curiously, bad production has occasionally been a deliberate choice as well as a budgetary inevitability.

Emperor’s records from In the Nightside Eclipse on to this one (their final studio album) are nothing like that. The production tends to be quite clean for the material (it’s still metal, so it is still quite heavy on distortion), which can also be attributed to the “sub-sub-subgenre” of “symphonic black metal”, which Ihsahn slowly pushed their sound toward as time went on–or rapidly, I suppose, if one listens to Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk and specifically tracks like “Al Svartr (The Oath)” or “The Wanderer”.

“The Eruption” opens the album in a fashion not dissimilar to those tracks on previous albums, with howling winds, a whispering setting of the scene from Ihsahn (“…And after years in dark tunnels, he came to silence. There was nothing…”), and then a harpsichord (almost guaranteed synthetic) and synthesized violin set a kind of mixed quaint, gothic, and isolated tone before his guitars come in with Samoth’s to fill the sound out enormously on top of Trym’s drumming, their melody repeating that of the harpsichord’s. And then the sound turns to that of black metal: sheets of rapid guitar riffing and Trym’s signature fill-heavy and descending drums. The track makes immediately clear that this album is not going to be straightforward. Ihsahn’s growing fascination with clean vocals overlaid, as started on their previous album (IX Equilibrium) is now put to full effect–there are echoing choral voices (all his, of course!) that answer his “shrieked”¹ verses, and a rather melodic (and actually catchy!) chorus. The tempo and sound is fluid; little remains consistent throughout it, though it comes back to its own sounds repeatedly, shifting as if a set of constantly rising and lowering terrain that has an underlying but non-simple pattern to it.

Continuing the “spoken introductions”, “Depraved” further sets forth the “concept album” behind it all, though it makes it no more explicit. The music that follows the introduction is call-and-response shards of high-end guitar met with thundering force of drums, bass, and fuller-sounding guitars. It actually fairly well chugs for quite some time, until it locks into a melodic riff and a machine-like set of rapid drumming from Trym. A more consistent-sounding song, its only movements tend to shift the sound of that riff, or act in normal bridge fashions, linking similar passages.

The closest the album came to a single, “Empty” did have a promotional video made for it. In true Emperor fashion–hearkening back to their classic first two albums–the song simply starts. Like many of their most famous tracks, there is only an introduction of a kind–Trym does not work his way into the clattering wall of beats that the song possesses, it simply starts from the outset. Repetitions of “He is an empty shell” anchor the song next to the atonal pinched harmonic noise of its clearest lick, while short passages of keyboards give way to a more straightforward riffing movement  in a more familiar tempo–curiously, the verses, not the chorus.

“The Prophets” is another doom-y moment for the album, much like portions of “Depraved”, as it chugs forward at a steady 4/4, deep vocals mixed heavily with the guitars gutturally swarm across the track, which makes the lower-mixed-than-previous clean vocals both more apparent and more naturally blended when they answer. It’s those clean vocals that bridge the song into its halfway point, wherein the guitars are heard in isolation and suddenly speed up to a new riff, that Trym slips in under with a constant blastbeat (snare-bass-snare-bass) that is so intrinsic to much of the basic black metal sound. The thinned, high-end lead lick that is used to contrast with the rapid riffing it trades off with is also a signature sound: it is cracked and fragile, but only at a glance–it’s actually confident and empowered in a fascinating way.

In “The Tongue of Fire”, we’re again treated to the relative absence of introduction, but, as the longest track on the record, it has perhaps the most variance in sound of all, turning entirely from its heavy and charging first section to a slowed and expansive, synth-heavy middle section dominated entirely by Ihsahn’s clean voice. When he finally rises off into the distance with the phrase, “Slowly maddened/By the emptiness…” the sheets of crackling, blackened high-end guitar rain down over Trym’s tom-pounding and oddly hopeful and semi-positive synths. Guitars that reclaim the track are indicative of the melody riffed earlier, but instead cleaner and more lead-oriented, taking the instrumental portion of the song off into a complete third direction that suddenly turns into a curling, sharpened fourth portion that re-introduces the heavy sound via bass and drums, as well as Ihsahn’s voice, but declines to return to riff-styled guitars. It does also drop in that one falsetto-esque King Diamond-styled moment, which introduces yet more unique passages in the song, which declines to end cleanly, but instead to fade slowly on the imperial synths and cracked guitar leads of the central few moments.

“In the Wordless Chamber” is blastbeats and gothic synths over those speaker-filling sheets of guitar that are the absolute signature of black metal. Synthesized horns add a curious sound to the track, over Trym’s relentless beat, they almost imply a kind of charging mounted army, sending out the call to attack. For a title like “In the Wordless Chamber”, it seems odd and incorrect, but it comes to a halt and folds back on itself with a gong–the quietest moment in all the album, or at least the most serene, follows: it’s all synthetic strings and more generalized keyboard-style waves beneath that. But somewhere in them, a noticeably flat note begins to herald the return of that forward charge of horns and thundering drums.

“Grey” is a return to the distinctly complicated sounds of previous tracks that were uninterested in find a sound and sticking to it–not in the sense of the immediately previous pair, but those like “Depraved”, though it, too, has a quieter section–but one dominated by the cascades of blackened guitar, rather than the sorrowful synthetic strings that weave around behind. The nature of black metal makes it all feel like a kind of climax to the album’s concept and story, but it isn’t–if that feeling defined that moment, the entire album would be climax with only brief reprieve. It is, however, a clearly increased slope upward toward that moment.

“He Who Sought Fire” stomps heavily, but a single guitar seems to be trying to draw it back into the crashing maelstrom of more familiar black metal territory, which it is indeed successful at after mere moments; Trym is led to frantic blastbeats and then exhaustingly inescapable double-kick bass drums. Ihsahn has fully wrested the band from any grip of “standard” black metal, though, with a lead guitar that soars over the track and defies the dirtied, thinned and wall-wide sound more typical of it. Somewhat surprisingly, a bit of “wah-wah” is actually run over his guitar sound, though more for a consistent modulation of a repeated riff than anything else.

Perhaps one of the most-liked tracks on the album (at least, in my experience, which is admittedly confused), “Thorns on My Grave” is indeed a final track, but not an outro. A momentary hook is built around fingers slid rapidly up the neck of guitars, a sound that is unusual for the record and yet entirely interesting. The synths, in full “symphonic” mode, act as backing to the riffs and fill the track with drama in lead up to the pounding of the verse, which is punctuated by the repetition of that slid-finger lead. The wild spirals of high-end strings lend a chaotic, climactic note to the verses, surrounding that chorus: “For it holds every disease/Ever exposed/It holds all pain and death/It could ever unleash…” he howls wordlessly after its final repetition, and introduces the last verse, howling out the last words with unheard passion: “I am the father/I am the son/My refugee soul has escaped/This body depraved/Of final wishes I ask none/But one/Now that I am gone/Lay thorns on my grave!” and the album ends suddenly on the most emotionally extreme of notes it experiences.

Prometheus still tends to remind me of Death’s The Sound of Perseverance, in that it is a clear continuation of a band’s sound, but now almost totally divorced from its simplistic origin and wrapped in a bombastic, progressive, focused, clean, clear package. It’s not an album that you would expect, nor one that you wouldn’t. Death’s Symbolic clearly paved the way for their final album, much as there’s a clear movement toward Prometheus for Emperor, but in neither case would that final work be the expected end result–so far as I’m concerned, anyway.

Depending on your existing taste, Prometheus may actually be the first Emperor album you want to look at–if musical reaching, complexity and craft are your bread and butter, there is no better example. Those moments are spread, scattered, or at least separate on even albums like the one immediately before this. But his one is uniquely focused–Anthems has its columns that string the parts together, but Prometheus flows between its parts without need of guideposts to remind you it is a single journey.

¹This is the term I’ve always used for black metal vocals, to contrast them with the much lower-pitched sound of death metal vocals, but it’s imperfect. Ihsahn’s often sound (in later years at least–in the earlier ones, he tended to sound more like he was hissing them through a laterally pinched voice) more as though he is making sound through constant inhalation, rather than exhalation. It means they are a bit too low in pitch to fit that “shrieking” bill, but they are still much higher than death metal “growls”.

Eels – Shootenanny! (2003)

 SpinArt Records ■ spart 128


 
Released June 2, 2003

Produced by E
Reorded and Mixed by Greg Collins; A4, A6 by Ryan Boesch
Additional Engineering by Greg Burns, Alicia Guadagno
Mastered by Bernie Grundman; A6 by Dan Hersch


Side One: Side Two:
  1. All in a Day’s Work
  2. Saturday Morning
  3. Good Old Days
  4. Love of the Loveless
  5. Dirty Girl
  6. Agony
  1. Rock Hard Times
  2. Restraining Order Blues
  3. Lone Wolf
  4. Wrong About Bobby
  5. Numbered Days
  6. Fashion Award
  7. Somebody Loves You

The list of artists I’ve so far covered that I’ve listened to longer than Eels is relatively short and largely composed of the least surprising artists for me to have known for a long period of time.¹ I actually made my way into Eels fandom on the cusp of my freshman year of college, at the suggestion of my then-girlfriend, who owned Daisies of the Galaxy (in its infamously, hilariously self-censored version) and Beautiful Freak, both of which I owned before too terribly long after that, alongside their two closest temporal relatives: 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues and 2001’s Souljacker, which was still the most recent album at the time. A year later, this album was released, and you can bet, by then, I was picking it up right around the release date.

My Eels records are–somewhat shockingly–apparently the most valuable records I own. I don’t own a ton (the others are the 2×10″ Electro-Shock Blues and the last album, Wonderful, Glorious on the same format, but in a different colour, as well as End Times with its “A Line in the Dirt” 7″ companion), but people will apparently pay a lot for them. It’s less that it’s shocking for quality or popularity, and more for the fact that it has felt more like the Eels crowd is shrinking than growing, so why they would remain so expensive when the audience is (I think?) dwindling, I don’t know. Still, right now the only vinyl copy of this record listed at any sites I’d ever check to see if I want to pick up a record I can’t readily find² is at one of three sites, and they start from $125 US. Yowza! That’s almost ten times what I paid for it a decade ago!


I suppose it’s interesting I started listening to Eels in the fashion I did–for one thing, Chelsea isn’t and wasn’t A Music Person™, as she has since made a single music recommendation, and, within a year or two I knew more Eels music than she did by increasing orders of magnitude. I don’t think she’s ever caught up, but the whole not-A-Music-Person™ thing means that when we talk, it isn’t usually about music anyway. For another, Beautiful Freak is probably the most uncharacteristic of all of their albums, and Daisies is almost always talked of or thought of in the shadow of its predecessor (’98’s Electro-Shock Blues). The censored version of Daisies, alongside that, did make it possible to hear it in the art class we shared (sort of–only “It’s a Motherfucker” was censored, and incompletely, as it was all sarcastic anyway), but was, of course, not the original. I do sometimes think about finding a copy of that version, though.

But I was rather well-rounded on my Eels knowledge by the time Shootenanny! came out. I had all of their albums up to that point and tended to wear them out constantly, especially in those days where you could carry my CD collection in a box or two–and maybe even my records, for that matter (I couldn’t tell you how many it takes now, because I didn’t count all of them when I moved here 9 months ago). It became more and more interesting that I did like them, though–Chelsea’s parents did, too, and so did mine. My whole nuclear family went to see them live once, even, though I recall it being closer to the release of follow-up Blinking Lights and Other Revelations.

With “All in a Day’s Work”, the feel and tone of most of Shootenanny! is set into place: unsurprisingly for Mark Oliver Everett (aka “E”), it’s entirely in contrast to the image set-up by an exclamation mark on a word modified from a celebratory occasion. It’s largely plodding in pace, with a grungy filter over his voice that distorts it quite deliberately. There’s a nice set of instruments behind it, and he even works in an interesting vocal “duet” with the guitars, but it remains dirge-like despite this, particularly via Butch’s clear-cut and knowingly basic drumming. It’s always been a favourite track of mine anyway, though–the way the chorus cuts through that shuffling slump without actually lifting the tone (just the energy!) is pretty magnificent. That the whole thing is lyrically self-deprecating (ie, “everything is screwed up, which is all just a day’s work for me…”), but with the same shrugging disinterest and twist of wry awareness that permeate’s E’s songwriting, whether it’s truly poignant pains of the well-known variety (his family history is a gigantic pile of sadness and loss) or just this kind of self-ribbing.

An actual relatively famous single as Eels tracks go, “Saturday Morning” is a lot shinier and more upbeat than its predecessor. It’s oddly cleaner, even as the guitar lead is squawky like E likes it³. The vocals do go right into falsetto, which is not a new thing for Eels, but may make the most sense it ever has when it’s placed in a song sung from the point of view of a wired kid who has woken up alone and wants some company for the best day of the week a kid has.

Though I’m often left thinking of the Weird Al original song of the same title, “The Good Old Days” is one of E’s better shruggingly pessimistic ballads. It’s a world that’s not all that great, really, and neither is he, for the woman to whom he sings. But, who knows? Maybe this is as good as it gets–maybe the kids out there enjoying it like any other day, maybe the contrast with a bad dream–maybe the two of them just need to make these the good old days. It’s a quietly pretty song, with E’s voice at its surface-morose best, and a very fragile acoustic guitar track backed by a sad, sweet sliding one. It’s engaging in its simplicity–or maybe because of it, or maybe some combination of the two.

Building on a set of very “lo-fi” simple tracks, including a 1-2, 1-2 drum machine, E sings right up at the microphone, an approach he seems to use to imply a kind of immediacy, intimacy, and frankness. Warm keys and incredibly spare guitar join him for the chorus and bring a brightened edge to the song at an entirely appropriate moment, as he sings: “If there’s a God up there, something above/God shine your light down here/Shine on the love/Love of the loveless”, though it drops away again for the next verse. It rejoins moments earlier when the chorus returns this time, though. And this time he repeats the title a few more times, one of them emphatic and passionate. The bridge appears and has a moment of anticipatory tension, growing and growing and–dropped on its face, not violently, just with a matter-of-fact sort of tone, which is an E trademark at this point. But then the song holds its warm edge, and E starts to latch onto that passion he flashed earlier, the song managing a kind of strength that is not belied at all by a still slow pace and instrumentation that, while brightened, is still spare and overall light. It’s a clever and interesting trick, actually, and one of the other songs I’ve always liked on the record.

While I’ve always felt Beautiful Freak was an aberration in E’s discography, the phrase itself manages to encapsulate the overall sense of E’s approach to songwriting: pretty, but unusual, and juxtaposed oddly. “Dirty Girl” reminds me of this because it starts with a nice guitar line in isolation, but takes a sharp turn when Butch drops in for E’s first verse, which begins: “I like a girl with a dirty mouth…” The chorus is wonderful over its broken, half-dissonant but actually quite pretty chords. That same style is used for a solo section, and the style lets it really fill the track out, as if the chord is splintering so that it can fill any remaining cracks around it. It’s like the solo moment allows this trick to reveal itself, where it comes off as a clean, flat surface behind E’s voice in the chorus. It should be no shock at this point that, though Butch’s beat is very uptempo and cheery, the song itself is anything but–yet continues to avoid mopeyness.

The tiniest of intros precedes “Agony”–a call for a new take, and then a quick run up and down some keys cheerfully. It makes a funny kind of sense, as the song that follows is one of the most purely miserable songs E has done–it’s self-aware enough to avoid the sense of pure self-pity, but it has no real wry edge. It’s all keys and drum machine-style beat to start–and the keys have a reverb and electronic tone that lets their chords curl off like the unsettled floor of a body of water when something hits it–slow motion waves that are but the side effect of the real force at play. Strangled and heavily muted 4th beat guitar chords give way to heavily phased and distorted keys that seem to swallow the rest of the track, the low end swelling beneath them and creating a somewhat disorienting sense to the song.

“Rock Hard Times” has the kind of intro that says, “Hey, this is about to be a really catchy song, so we need to kind of prepare you for it”–at least, in the alt-rock kind of vernacular, it does, I think. A solid four-on-the-floor beat and a nicely back-and-forth bounce to the tune make it a catchy tune indeed, with a wonderful chorus–more misery, but with a kind of determined hope behind them. And after a nice, restrained solo section, the keys take over for an organ-style solo of their own. E’s voice and the very pointed notes of the actually near-monotonic guitar backing are the real stars, though, the former riding across the bed-of-nails of the latter like a steadily bumpy ride continuing readily forward.

Heavy on slide, the kind that makes people say a song is “country-tinged”, “Restraining Order Blues” is a song I might place in that pantheon of “stalker songs”, but most of those tend to be ones that don’t explicitly state it in both the title and lyrics that reference the judge who approved the order. It’s just another off-kilter source for E to write a knowingly melodramatic paean to an unattainable and unrequited love. One gets the impression that it does bear some more resemblance to a stalker song I’ve already covered, in that that song’s author described it more as infatuation or attraction that has been taken entirely too far–rather than the explicit (or even implied) threat of some of the others out there. Which is apparently enough in some cases to confuse people as to how acceptable it is, or whether, in this context, a restraining order would be overreaction (answer: most likely, it wouldn’t).

Probably my favourite song when the record came out, “Lone Wolf” has a chugging, punctuated forward momentum. It is interestingly a sort of distant, fuzzy analogue to future track “Hombre Lobo” (title track of the album that came out six years after this one). It’s a defiant and proud track, though not one swollen with hubris, really. It’s not that E is describing himself as amazingly independent–just a definitive introverted sort of person. Even in its slightly re-arranged version on Sixteen Tons (Ten Songs), composed of re-workings of Eels songs for Morning Becomes Eclectic, there’s a power to the song that the original version is concretely built from, even at its starting point of drum machine and heavily strummed acoustic.

The bass on “Wrong About Bobby” starts the song off on its own, and tells us we’re in for something more akin to the earlier chunk of Eels history. Unsurprisingly, then, “Wrong About Bobby” is the closest relative to “Saturday Morning” on the album, with the strongest solo, an upbeat tempo and more cheerful guitars than in most of the other tracks. Butch does his signature Eels beat, and E does his story-teller voice, the one that doesn’t tie the lyrics as directly to himself. It ends with a strangely produced, half-reversed outro that bridges it nicely into the next track.

“Numbered Days” is perhaps the saddest and prettiest track on the record–it’s not actually all that openly miserable in tone, but there’s this underlying feel to the chords, like they’re bright-faced and hopeful, but you can just see their approaching emotional doom the entire time. Maybe it’s the fact that it avoids snares and cymbals so completely for half the track–even the bass drum just following the bass guitar. When the snare and cymbal are finally allowed to enter, they bring with them the carefully meted out, extremely forceful single piano notes that don’t sour the sound, really, they just sort of take it back down to earth. The power in them is a kind of finality, a kind of, “No, things aren’t going to turn out quite so well as you might think.”

Always a confusing track to see the title of, “Fashion Awards” harkens back to the simple, child-like sounds of tracks like “Jeannie’s Diary” and “Daisies of the Galaxy” from three years prior. E’s voice is all falsetto, and the guitar he plays is delicate and fragile. Even though Koool G. Murder’s (really) bass is firm, the delicacy of the song overall is not lost. When keys begin to act as backing chorus to the guitar, when Butch’s drums enter–it still doesn’t change. The fragility is largely retained in the falsetto vocals, as well as the intense, fatalistic (and disturbingly uncaring) refrain of “…Nobody said that the world was fair/And if they did say so, well then…/…We’ll blow off our heads in despair.” It’s so absurd a reaction, so over-the-top, that it swings all the way out past seeming self-pitying or attention-seeking (or, thankfully, serious) without actually losing the feeling that leads toward that statement anyway.

Perhaps in keeping with everyone calling Electro-Shock Blues depressing and Daisies of the Galaxy cheerful despite E’s insistence that each is the opposite, I think “Somebody Loves You” marks the definitive moment in the record, and thus readily counters the insistence that it’s nothing but an exercise in misery, and, for some, a crossing of the line he so readily balanced before. The swing of the opening chords points toward rays of light in the distance, but strong ones. The chorus they are pointing to comes sooner than expected, though there’s a swing down to really kick it into the stratosphere right before it hits. And when it hits…boy, what a song to inspire in moments that one might feel the rest of the album fits for. It acknowledges current sadness, but gives inspiration for progressing past it: “Somebody loves you/And you’re gonna make it through…” I think for E–based, at least, on his comments on Daisies–knowingly and deliberately chose this as a final track, and as a moment that, then, defines the totality of the record, even in its contrast. There is passion, sincerity, earnestness, and even some kind of truth in the way he sings that chorus: it’s easy to believe it, even if you may think otherwise–at the least, that he sincerely means that it simply has to be true.

I’ve spent much of my time since 2003 considering Shootenanny! the “plain Jane” of the Eels oeuvre. Maybe it’s the cover art, maybe it’s after the shifting styles of Electro-Shock Blues and Daisies of the Galaxy managed to finally explode into the strong but wildly erratic Souljacker two years before and so little could seem anything but musically banal in comparison. Maybe it is the most “plain” of their records. I’m not sure–it was Butch’s last full contribution, and it was the first album I heard new from the Eels, and a band I fall in love with then hear new material from is often in for a rocky moment or three. As I’ve listened to this record again, particularly having to pay attention (else this would be an exercise in linguistic masturbation at best: I’m writing for the music, not for the writing, and would not want it otherwise) I feel either time has been kind, or I was too harsh. It’s still hard to look at that plain cover and get an evocation of the feelings it instills, but maybe that was the point–even the interior is a scattered set of studio photographs, nothing really indicating anything about the songs.

I’m not sure at all, what it is, or was, though I think I was not alone in initial disappointment–but I rescind that pretty emphatically now. This is an extremely good record, which I’ve unfortunately missed for much of the last ten years. Shame on me, I guess!

¹AC/DC, Alice in ChainsAphex Twin, At the Drive-In, The Band, The Beatles, David Bowie, The Cars, Eric Clapton, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Deftones, Dire Straits, and a few I did, of course know of, but didn’t go out of my way to listen to, like the Beach Boys, who I followed John into in college. And, yes: the one who reviewed Album – Generic Flipper and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. That will either make no sense to you or complete sense, I think.

²Not an extensive list. Just Amazon, eBay, and Discogs.

³I’ll never forget the interview I read over ten years ago, where he said that he liked noises that made people check their stereos because they were afraid they might be broken.

Diabolical Masquerade – Death’s Design (2001)

Avantgarde Music ■ AV 55 LP

Released August 21, 2001

Produced by Blakkheim and Dan Swanö

Edited, Assembled and Mixed by Dan Swanö, Ryan Taylor, Sean C. Bates
Mastered by Peter In De Betou



Side One: Side Two:
Movements 1-9 Movements 10-20¹

It’s difficult to pinpoint the causes behind my original exposure to this release–it stemmed, no doubt, from a combination of my college friend who introduced me to the wider worlds of metal and the metal-based message board I spent a good deal of college hanging around. Dan Swanö’s endless appearances and projects (he has 293 credits on Discogs–more than Nicky Hopkins, for the moment!) surrounded his name with an aura of awe, and the release is just peculiar enough to catch my attention readily–in both sound and construction. 

As I’ve already noted,¹ the work is split into not just 20 movements but 61 individual parts that are pressed as separate tracks. You may also notice that this is listed as an “Original Motion Picture Soundtrack”, which it most definitely isn’t. There is no movie (Swedish or otherwise–there’s a making-of documentary for one of the Final Destination movies, but that’s it) with the title Death’s Design, and this isn’t really a soundtrack, though it does sound a bit like it could be. Then again, Easy Rider taught us that most any songs could be a soundtrack. But the construction and faux-soundtrack status aren’t everything: this is also a wildly eccentric, eclectic, and vaguely erratic disc. An Estonian string quartet (though five string players are credited, so something’s not right) is involved, as are both Blakkheim’s endless instruments and Swanö’s (particularly the keyboards).

Each of the tracks has a running time of 0:06-2:18, with the great majority occupying something in the realms of 0:30-0:80, and it turns on a dime at many of those changeovers, from atmospheric strings or synthetics to driving black metal. It would be a huge waste of both my time and yours to attempt to describe the thing, as we range from Blakkheim’s shrieking black metal aggression (as in the multi-part “The Hunt”) to Swanö’s clean and tuneful soaring voice (“Spinning Back the Clocks” in the 5th Movement), from the keyboard-drenched percussion of “Conscious in No Materia” in the 2nd Movement to humming strings and tension of “Revelation of the Puzzle” in the 3rd, to the etheral mystery of “The Remains of Galactic Expulsions” in the 4th. It’s a wild mix of anything and everything–not a foreign thought to black metal, which has used keyboard texturing and expanded sonic palettes throughout a lot of its existence (except when relegated to the intentional lo-fi of groups like the purist Darkthrone, though they eventually started using synthesizers and such, too).

Black metal is a curiosity in metal–as a genre, it will occasionally drift more toward early Darkthrone, or toward Immortal, but often even the biggest names will grow restless and experimental, like Emperor and Mayhem. Of course, it’s typically considered a Norwegian genre, in that it originated primarily with bands from that country, but sometimes it’s the outside iterations that feel the most freedom–Dissection managed to cram black and death metal into a single unified skin for a few excellent albums, and here Blakkheim (he of Katatonia and sometimes known by his real name, Anders Nyström) furthers that trend. In truth, you’d be hard-pressed to nail the album down to just “black metal”, as it would simply be wildly inaccurate, as it’s only that in places. Even the metallic, heavy, or aggressive parts often deviate from the sounds of black metal, whether it’s backing Swanö’s clean vocals or echoing familiar tunes in “Out from the Dark”, or chugging weirdly in “The Enemy Is the Earth”.

If nothing else, this is an album to hear just because, as it’s not like anything else you’re likely to hear–especially as it somehow maintains cohesion perfectly, through all 61 parts and innumerable genre shifts, recurring motifs, new sounds and styles. It’s actually an amusing game to play it and try to guess which part you’re on–you’ll lose track quickly, as the blends and changes are so nice and clean that it doesn’t sound at all even like the separate movements, let alone the 61 parts those are split into. And that’s a good thing, and an occasionally rare thing–tiny tracks are not unknown, nor is taping them together, and indeed rapid genre changes are also not news, but it’s rare for all of these things to be seen at once, rarer still for them all to work. Some metal bands (and some other bands, for that matter) will happily switch time signatures, but, in their excitement forget to make that change “work” for the song, and it blares out warning signs when it happens. Sometimes cobbling together a scattered set of small tracks doesn’t work (to be fair, sometimes it isn’t intended to become cohesive), or it seems like a cheap gimmick to force them in where they aren’t necessary, but, when broken down, this does feel legitimate on both counts.

I do have to note that this was a limited run of 1,000 pieces, and the doofus who solid it used to the store I bought it from apparently hung it on his or her wall, as there are pinholes in both of the top corners. Shameful! Still, it did come with the bizarre and inexplicable bonus picture disc LP I reviewed as my first entry here. I’m still not sure if that was known–even by the store. But, hey, it worked out. Mostly–both LPs  have some surface noise and light scratching. Probably better to remove two limited releases from such incautious hands!

¹The movements are split into 61 (!) separate tracks on CD, and indeed have their own grooves on the record. They are as follows:
Side One:

Side Two
 1st Movement

  1. Nerves in Rush
  2. Death Ascends – The Hunt (Part I)
  3. You Can’t Hide Forever
  4. Right on Time for Murder – The Hunt (Part II)
2nd Movement
  1. Conscious in No Materia
  2. A Different Plane
  3. Invisible to Us
  4. The One Who Hides a Face Inside
3rd Movement
  1. …And Don’t Ever Listen to What It Says
  2. Revelation of the Puzzle
  3. Human Prophecy
  4. Where the Suffering Leads
4th Movement
  1. The Remains of Galactic Expulsions
  2. With Panic in the Heart
  3. Out from the Dark
  4. Still Coming at You
  5. Out from a Deeper Dark
5th Movement

  1. Spinning Back the Clocks

    6th Movement
    1. Soaring Over Dead Rooms
    7th Movement
    1. The Enemy Is the Earth
    2. Recall
    3. All Exits Blocked
    4. The Memory Is Weak
    5. Struck at Random/Outermost Fear
    6. Sparks of Childhood Coming Back
    8th Movement
    1. Old People’s Voodoo Seance
    2. Mary-Lee Goes Crazy
    3. Something Has Arrived
    4. Possession of the Voodoo Party
    9th Movement
    1. Not of Flesh, Not of Blood
    2. Intact with a Human Psyche
    3. Keeping Faith
    10th Movement
    1. Someone Knows What Scares You
    2. A Bad Case of Nerves
    3. The Inverted Dream/No Sleep in Peace
    4. Information
    5. Setting the Course
    11th Movement
    1. Ghost Inhabitants
    2. Fleeing from Town
    3. Overlooked Parts
    12th Movement
    1. A New Spark – Victory Theme (Part I)
    2. Hope – Victory Theme (Part II)
    3. Family Portraits – Victory Theme (Part III)
    13th Movement
    1. Smokes [sic] Starts to Churn
    2. Hesitant Behaviour
    3. A Hurricane of Rotten Air
    14th Movement
    1. Mastering the Clock
    15th Movement
    1. They Come, You Go

    16th Movement 

    1. Haarad El Chamon
    2. The Egyptian Resort
    3. The Pyramid
    4. Frenzy Moods and Other Oddities
    17th Movement
    1. Still Part of the Design – The Hunt (Part III)
    2. Definite Departure
    18th Movement
    1. Returning to Haraad El Chamon
    2. Life Eater
    3. The Pulze
    4. The Defiled Feeds
    19th Movement
    1. The River in Space
    2. A Soulflight Back to Life
    20th Movement
    1. Instant Rebirth – Alternate Ending


    Deftones – Deftones (2003)

    Maverick ■ 48350-1

    Released May 20, 2003

    Produced by Terry Date and Deftones
    Engineered and Mixed by Terry Date
    Additional Engineering by Pete Roberts
    Mastered by Tom Baker



    Side One: Side Two:
    1. Hexagram
    2. Needles and Pins
    3. Minerva
    4. Good Morning Beautiful
    5. Deathblow
    6. When Girls Telephone Boys
    1. Battle-Axe
    2. Lucky You
    3. Bloody Cape
    4. Anniversary of an Uninteresting Event
    5. Moana

    If you had known me in high school (and at least a person or two who reads here on occasion did), you would find this band’s appearance none too surprising. I normally try not to date myself, as it influences opinions about my opinions, but it’s difficult to avoid here (as it has been on a few odd other occasions)–in 2000, Deftones’ White Pony was released, their prior hit, “My Own Summer” from 1997’s Around the Fur having taken them up on the crest of the “nü-metal” wave most typified by Limp Bizkit and Korn,¹ but, as with grunge and various other genres named for reasons of simplification (in the end, often rounding up disparate genres and slapping them under a single umbrella for marketing reasons, though there tends to be something shared), many bands didn’t share the overt stylistic leanings of the flag-bearers.

    I was never much of a fan of the other two bands, indeed, rarely listening to either, but I’d not yet been introduced to “real” metal, and the strange reflexive responses ingrained in me from my father’s distaste (Iron Maiden seemed like some distant, scary-like-a-horror-movie thing for many years, for instance) didn’t encourage changing that. So this was the genre that, as its popularity was at its height, managed to ensnare my aggressive leanings, musically. Many of the bands I listened to at the time will actually make appearances here–some surprisingly, some less so, but this is one of the ones I tend to get least nervous about. If anyone really and truly outgrew the (intentionally disparaging) moniker of “nü metal” (as opposed to both not doing so or becoming the example of “the good kind”), it is and was Deftones. Indeed, they’d left most of the sound behind on their second album (the aforementioned Around the Fur) after exorcising the great majority on 1995’s Adrenaline. Small wonder–the band actually started in 1988 (!), and never really injected rap into their style, certainly not in the fashion that was so common at the time.
    White Pony established them firmly as both popular and critics’ darlings for some time to come,² releasing them (almost) completely from the derogatory shadow of the genre that is still (occasionally) applied to them. While White Pony is typically considered the masterpiece of the group, and I know that, at 16 or 17 at least, I certainly couldn’t be found disagreeing. I ended up known in some contexts for playing that album nearly to death in those days, often without realizing it–apparently earning the expectation that any time I brought an album to play in a class where it was allowed that it would be that (I surprised someone with a different one one day, apparently).
    It’s been thought of by others as their greatest work for long enough now that this opinion is starting to become old hat–but this is starting to change, and become less a consensus as time goes on. Deftones, then, is the follow-up to that, no longer constrained by the expectations of a “genre” now in its effective death-throes (2002 or 2003 was a real decline in its visibility–or maybe I just imagined that as I’d started to leap off in every musical direction at the time!). Maybe, though, it was that I was now in college and had access to both record stores in walking distance and even nice, sealed new vinyl like this very album, which the sticker on the front implies I picked up the year of its release from one of the stores in the town I went to college in.
    The album opens with what would be the release’s second single, “Hexagram”, which dances with a rather sunny set of guitars over a similarly bright low end introduction, which pounds downward after only a few bars as Abe Cunnigham’s drums smash in with Chino Moreno’s scream–“Paint the streets in white!” but there’s still an interesting edge to the music: as thumping and powerful as it has become, it’s still using that sunny riff as its primary focus, but the chorus changes that: “Worship! Play, play…” Chino sings, almost mockingly, Stephen Carpenter’s guitar and Chi Cheng’s bass hammering out staccato, halting riffs that rock and roil but stop suddenly, eventually coming back out to an open spread that re-introduces the verse’s sound. Chino works the verses up at the first and third lines to extended, periodically “catching” screams, and exhausted second and fourth ones. It’s fascinating that it hits on the down-tuned aggression of their early days and the sounds they became associated with, yet marries them to the curious sounds of Carpenter’s interesting opening riff. There’s a bridge where an electronically-affected vocal from Moreno is followed only by a lone guitar, but it all swings back to “the same sound”…
    “Needles and Pins” does not relent in terms of energy, but the sound is almost more spare, Cunningham’s ever-interesting drum style would be skittering if it weren’t too deep and low to be called that. Carpenter’s guitar seems to be stuck in a locked groove, circling around and around as if it was only a sample (not an impossibility with the talents of Frank Delgado–but he had moved to keys instead of turntables). Moreno lodges himself in his airiest mode for much of the song, pushing his voice down for the verses, half-bored, half-sarcastic, until he reaches out with it: “I’m here, if that’s what you want”–launching into the chorus, a second voice barking out accompanying answers to the empowered version of Chino’s bored vocals, which he takes to their point of dry, rasping breaking point to yell out the finish of the chorus. The song centers on that strangely alluring rhythmic guitar and metronomic but “stumbling” drum beat, which seems as though it should relent at the song’s end, but instead seems to keep cycling and repeating in the way it feels as though it would demand against expectations.
    The first single from the album, “Minerva” struck me in my then-semi-nascent post rock phase: the guitars are walled up and enormous, an absolute tidal wave against Abe’s steady, deliberate beat, Chino’s voice all curves and rounded edges, Carpenter’s guitar occasionally drifting out in anticipation of the crashing waves. Of course, now I’ve read many more comparisons that suggest, instead, the influence of shoegaze like My Bloody Valentine, and the idea makes sense, in that it sounds like that same heavily layered, shimmering guitar sound Kevin Shields fancies, but I stand by the post rock (think mid-period Mogwai, if that’s something you’re able to think) association, as the weight of the tune is beyond the appealing float of MBV’s preferences, which don’t at all attempt such heaviness. It’s a clear declaration of sound for the group–not an encapsulation of the album and those that would follow it, but a flag in the sand, a firm watershed that clarified that, even when they looked backward, it would be from at least this vantage point. The vaguely discomforted solo guitar (not guitar solo) of Carpenter slowly takes the song outward, and drifts off ambiguously.
    One of my favourite tracks on the album, “Good Morning Beautiful” hammers itself off with a riff and drumbeat that continue the heft of the Deftones’ sound but keep that shiny edge most recently heard in the opener, “Hexagram”, giving an oddly “friendly” tone to “Good Morning” that carries on through much of the track. The way Chino sings the verses is an emphatic example of why I like his vocals so much: “One of these days, you’ll break me of many things/Some cold white day, but you’re crazy if you think I would leave you this way…” an opening he uses to turn the song to not only the chorus–his vocals now more pleading and insistent, less cooled, but the throbbing guitars and drums that mark it–stripped of the high, friendly edge, but not intimidating, or aggressive. Abe throws in some wonderful fills when the verse returns, as Delgado’s keys add a peculiar skittering edge to the top of the track. The bridge manages to, interestingly, bridge the two vocal stylings Chino uses, the cooled verse and the nervous, semi-harried chorus, and works its way into a final set of choruses that is ended with a sustained version of that friendly riff, shiny and distorting into the distance.
    The first side of the album is largely focused on, if not aggression, at least uptempo and forward-moving numbers–perhaps “loud” would be a good word. But “Deathblow” seems to mark an end to this trend: an isolated and somewhat somber low-end guitar lick (low enough–the low tunings are the only retained element of “nü-metal”) that nudges at the sound of “Change (in the House of Flies)”, one of the biggest singles from White Pony, but with a more deflated, resigned atmosphere–not the ominous nature of that first song, but one that is exemplified by the sudden blare of the chorus: “And the ropes hang to keep us all awake I should have known…” But the verse returns, with its low energy, and the peculiar sounds dropped in from Delgado–whines and skipping reverberations. If there’s a “mean” to the album, it’s a combination of the sounds of perhaps “Minerva” at the higher end and “Deathblow” at the morose and low one. The way it sort of fades and dissipates at the end is as if it is slowly vibrating all of its sections out of sync, leaving finally Delgado’s electronic manipulations as the only echo past Cheng’s bass.
    “When Girls Telephone Boys” might seem to be a cap on the aggressive and louder end of the record, but it’s only a cap on the first side. A rather difficult to hear or understand sample of a woman’s voice that becomes clear enough to easily understand “It’s hella sensitive” sends the song charging headfirst into your ears (perhaps a deliberate trick with the obscure sample, while also being somewhat “meta” in its reference to being “sensitive”). It’s almost like being dropped into a song already progress, but it’s stopped short with the chugging, punctuated chorus, Chino’s scraggly screams over the song violent in sound and intention, trawling the depths of anger to convey an overt aggression that the rest of the band makes most clear in the thudding stripes of sound that define the musical backing of the chorus. It eventually squalls outward into a strange bridge of squawks from Delgado, the lovely deep, pounding drums of Cunningham and only eventually the returned descending chords of Carpenter’s guitar and Cheng’s bass. The song never relents–it just turns to cycling repetition of Chino’s cries of “And I hope we never do meet again!” and that riffing chorus that just fades off and away…
    You might think from the title that “Battle-Axe” would be a continuation of the aggression of “When Girls Telephone Boys”, but it starts with an open-ended guitar lick that quavers its way into Abe’s thumping entrance, carrying the rest of the band on able shoulders. Though now buried, that opening lick continues to define the song, before it becomes the verse’s sound just a few bars before Chino enters: focused on a bend, the riff is, like that of “Needles and Pins”, tight and restrained for the verses, open again as the chorus enters, which also smooths out Moreno’s voice, but when his words change from descriptive (“Still you love to think you have always been this way…”) to definitive (“…But you’re wrong”), the straps tighten again and the band scrunches back down into that tight bending riff.
    While many an album is front-loaded, Deftones is interesting because some of its best and most interesting tracks are those that end the album. This string begins with “Lucky You”, a heavily electronic track co-written and dominated by DJ Crook from Moreno side project Team Sleep. An all electronic beat, filled with unusual sounds and strange, warped scratching and “wubs” (for lack of a better term) backs Chino’s voice rather ominously, unease-inducing backing from guest vocalist Rey Osburn whisper out “If you feel lucky…if you feel…loved…” as Chino’s voice climbs up the chorus: “You’ve crossed the walls/Excelled/Further along through their hell…” The song is strange in its usage of multiple vocalists (not a foreign thing to the band to that point, nor since), like a strange sound collage in some ways that works more toward atmosphere than distinct tune, building on the rather uncomfortable but pleasing feeling implied by the curious beat.
    While some have called “Hexagram” or other tracks the best example of it, the way that “Bloody Cape”‘s free-floating guitar introduction suddenly turns downward into a punishingly heavy riff that is even further emphasized by the upward saw of the end of its axe-blow entrance makes this, so far as I’m concerned, the most wonderfully heavy song in the Deftones’ catalogue, even if it is not as consistently so as some others. There’s an easiness and a lightness to both the music and Chino’s voice as we enter the verse, but the jagged, focused stabs of guitar in the chorus strike their way right through it, snarling with Moreno’s cries of “First we are, ever to fall off of the Earth/We must be the first ones in the world to fall off of the earth…” but it’s that second appearance of the chorus and the way the riff suddenly gets even nastier, Abe’s drums now less flowing and more concretely rhythmic, guitars and bass stabbing violently through the track, bereft of tune, and eventually matched by the rasping screams of Chino: “God help, God help…” that suddenly end the tune.
    Seemingly an agreement with my own notions, Deftones follow “Bloody Cape” with the contemplative and piano-based (!) “Anniversary of an Uninteresting Event”, as if to relax everyone following the bloodied thunder of the preceding track. Percussion is all cymbals, tambourine, with bits of plodding bass-snare here and there to draw the essential frame. But it’s the grand piano and accompanying toy piano that define the track–but for the lovely washes of splash cymbal crescendo. “But not since you left have the waves come…” Chino sings forlornly, though the track is more bittersweet than outright sad. Perhaps it’s that toy piano, or maybe just the key they play in, maybe even the peculiar sounds inserted around it all, like the lightest fuzz in the background–I’m really not sure. I’ve listened to the song possibly more than any other on the record, as it fits the bill for the relaxed, semi-sad sound I often find appealing for much sitting and listening. It’s a beautiful track, thoroughly unexpected, but shot through with enough touches (particularly Moreno’s distinct voice, to be fair) to keep it uniquely Deftones.
    The anticipatory riff that opens “Moana” is brooding and suggestive of something to come, but Chi’s deep, resonant, and simple bassline is even more ominous, as Abe stalls it all with a single “ting”, letting the group pause before launching into a song whose closest relative would be “Minerva”, not aggressive but huge, Chino’s voice soaring but tuneful, climactic and scene-establishing: “As she walks onstage…”. The chorus is a flurry of fills from Abe between the nailings of a deep riff, like streaks through water–possibly with the impression that they are the trails of bullets. Chino’s voice is here used to its most peculiar effect: close and chilled, despite the energy of the music, yet the only appropriate match to it. Letting the last riff hang, only to drag it back in with a pick slid up the coils of a guitar string was only right as the way to end the track and the album
    While many are now finding 2006’s Saturday Night Wrist an apex moment for Deftones as a band, there’s a certain immediacy and experimental nature in Deftones that marks it as a unique stopping point along the progression of their sound. It has the hallmarks of it: atmospheric, alt-rock-cum-post-metal guitars, sharp, clear and interesting drums, deep, bassy sounds and the inexplicably not incongruous moans of Chino’s incredibly appealing voice. Yet, it also has curiosities: “Bloody Cape”‘s riff is couched as it is to sound all the more cutting, while “Anniversary” is an almost complete anomaly, yet neither of them feels out of place next to each other, nor in the album as a whole–it’s a moment that, in reflection, only seems strangely varied, even as it progresses quite naturally through a variety of moods and sounds, tinged as they are with some sun, despite the feelings of some.
    It’s not the iconic “must have” record in the sense of their place in the canon of music, nor of my own personal experience, or even any re-evaluated notions of apex in exclusively their own work, but it remains a record I’m very pleased to listen to, and enjoy having available in this format. Listening to it is nostalgic in ways music–oddly, I suppose–rarely is for me: it’s a feeling of summers and pasts and moments that could at least feel free of responsibility.
    One Love for Chi.
    Rest in Peace.
    • Next Up: Depeche Mode – Some Great Reward


    ¹Am I supposed to capitalize the “R”? I really don’t know.

    ²In large part, on into the modern day–I like to imagine the whole “Actually, they aren’t nü-metal…” intro has finally been retired–but my intention here is to be readable for anyone, so a little background is helpful, I like to think, so I included it.

    Day Fifty-Four: Decapitated – Winds of Creation

    Earache/Wicked World ■ WICK011LP


    Released April 11, 2000

    Produced by Piotr Wiwczarek (aka “Peter (VADER)”)




    Side One: Side Two:
    1. Winds of Creation
    2. Blessed
    3. The First Damned
    4. Way to Salvation
    1. The Eye of Horus
    2. Human’s Dust
    3. Nine Steps
    4. Danse Macabre
    5. Mandatory Suicide

    In discussing metal, I typically refer clearly–at some point, anyway–to my first ever “real” metal band, which was Morbid Angel.¹ Indeed, it was their second album, Blessed Are the Sick that really “clicked” with me finally, once I was able to get used to David Vincent’s vocals (and thus, forever after, the “cookie monster” growling that typifies death metal at large). I actually ordered the album direct from their label, Earache, at the time, back when I was still in high school. Coupled with it were a handful of stickers for other bands, like December Wolves and, well, Decapitated. Because I still knew so little about metal, I took those two names as inspiration for further exploration–and, hey, I was an eMusic Unlimited member at the time (when there still was such a thing), which meant their partnership with Earache opened the door for me to try just about anything I felt like that they recommended.


    I snagged Winds of Creation readily back then, and found myself pleased (December Wolves did not go over so well, but that’s largely because they were not and are not strictly death metal, which is what I was looking for at that time–in fact, they were triggered-drum-heavy black metal, which was still a very foreign thing to me). I picked up 2002’s Nihility as well, eventually even ordering it on the massive 220g vinyl that I also ordered Slaughter of the Soul on, at the same time. Winds of Creation ended up on one of my “I want to blast this metal” CDs (most of them paired with other albums) I burnt in those days, but Nihility eventually took over for me, largely on the back of the album’s single “Spheres of Madness”–which, let me emphasize, has an absolutely killer main riff. Of course, if you wander around and compare ratings (such as those at the stupendously comprehensive Encyclopædia Metallum²) you will find Winds consistently receives the highest ratings out of all of their albums (and note that The Negation slips significantly after Nihility, and that the last two albums get passable scores at best).
    Truth be told, Winds of Creation is a superior album overall. I still have a soft spot for Nihility and will often claim it as favoured personally, but I have to admit that the production, in particular, gives Winds the edge (Nihility is comparatively “dry” in production–intensely so, in fact). It was with this in mind–as well as a personal desire for ownership–that I ended up snagging Winds of Creation only a few weeks back. I’ve been wanting to give the album more spins, simply because it doesn’t have a song that completely breaks up the feel like “Spheres of Madness”, so there’s not as distinct a hook. Throw in the fact that it was actually issued on vinyl (this happened in 2010) and on coloured vinyl at that, and it was a given.
    While I’ve never noticed as strong a hook as the riff in “Spheres of Madness”, the opening of Winds of Creation, the title track, is a fantastic opener which doesn’t rely on the studio-based radio fuzz that opens Nihility. Witold “Vitek” Kiełtyka’s drums are absurdly precise, and create a distinct and rigid backing for his older brother Wacław “Vogg” Kiełtyka’s guitar riffs, before he unleashes his frighteningly rapid double-kick, which eventually launches the album into the stratosphere and makes room for the lean, muscular riffs of Vogg to streak up the sides of the song. Wojciech “Sauron” Wąsowicz has a wonderful growl: his vocal rhythms are strange and hard to follow, and masked somewhat by his rather distinct Polish accent (when you can match his words to the written lyrics, you can hear it easily, and it became more clear in Nihility where his voice was more clear in general). The song is pummeling and serves as a fantastic introduction to the band, who had previously recorded only demos, some of which were released on the compilation Polish Assault previously, but otherwise unreleased publicly. The finale of the song returns it all to the breakneck pacing it saw only briefly earlier, and allows Marcin “Martin” Rygiel’s bass to appear for one of the only times it is audible on the record (an unfortunately common truth particular to extreme metal subgenres), that gives the song some very clear punctuation.
    “Blessed” almost eases into place after the title track, with the actual playing speed undiminished, but the feel of the tempo seeming to connote a lesser emphasis on it–which does actually make Vogg’s riffs all the more blinding for their solitary choice of speed. Vitek and his brother blurr into a chaotic whirlwind as the first verse is introduced, Sauron’s voice blurring into the low end of the song fantastically. Vogg is given the briefest of spotlights, alone in the left channel, to which Vitek responds with deep thudding finality. After a low-end focus in the second verse portion, Vogg’s riffs seem to flash alongside as if they are the flames licking the sides of a rumbling engine–be they painted or real. There’s a wonderful breakdown of riffs that seem to stretch instead of chugging independently, buoyed by Martin’s matching bassline. Shifting tempos and movements are defined by a variety of riffs and drum beats. The ending speeds the song through a clearly locked snare and then charging riffs. Vogg drops a brilliant solo composed almost entirely of bends, that finally claims to an apex of bends. The way Vitek lays splash, ride, and snare over his rumbling engine of double-kick is something to behold, as if you could see him speeding beyond his bandmates, utterly unaware as they would seemingly need to struggle to ever catch up.
    Also given as the name of the compilation of their demo recordings (which also contained a version of the song, as well as numerous others later re-recorded for this album), “The First Damned” washes in like a thickened tide, building from Vogg’s isolated guitar to a full-stereo sound from him and Vitek. The main riff comes along and it’s a long stretch of tremolo picking that gives that wonderful “appearance” of a single strike being held (almost). The pacing is actually reduced in large part for this one–Vitek does not actually drop to simple blast beats, but his beats are less dominated by double-kick then they have been to this point. The second riff is lovely and bendy, seeming to pose itself as a question in response to Sauron’s vocals. The track has the most “normal” solo on the album, in that it is not defined primarily by the “tap” method of playing (wherein the player taps his or her fingers on the strings of the guitar using the picking hand, rather than picking them with plectrum or fingers). It’s a delightful solo, which seems to act as a sudden spike in the established riffing, increasing speed and range, even as it, too, seems a bit “slow” as compared to the rest. The leads are also a bit more melodic in the track, though they give way to another isolated, left-channel riff that acts as herald to the forward rush of the song’s full return. It’s also unusual in its ending, allowing a sustained hold to ring, rather than fading or stopping abruptly.
    Somewhat inexplicably, the lyrics to “Way to Salvation” are not printed in my vinyl or CD copy of this album, but that doesn’t reflect on the song itself. A nice balance of hand and foot drumming is marked by a scrabbling of riffs from Vogg. His guitar is practically unleashed as Sauron’s voice enters the track, seeming to splay and rush in all directions. The lead is one of the best full leads on the album, climbing to higher pitches than Vogg normally favours, and being possibly even double-tracked for a semi-harmonized stereo effect that is exaggerated by the guitar track’s absence in one channel prior to this effect. Vitek gets to throw in a fill that shows off his skill without breaking up the song, even as it does bring the song to a slowed tempo as if pulling at the reins–Vitek’s drumming is slowed for what might be the only time on the album, as is Vogg’s solo, which seems to be throwing in the exertion of a very steep climb as it makes its way along, occasionally stopping at a “plateau” for a seeming aside to listeners, sounding just slightly like the “Egyptian” tones of Nile for a moment, but regaining its own spirit, which has the slight pinches and squeals of Azagthoth-style³ soloing hidden in it. A semi-hypnotic, still slowed ending follows from this and is allowed to simply fade out, which seems only appropriate for the turn it has taken.
    “The Eye of Horus” follows a similar path to the title track, with Vitek’s drums acting as a very strict skeleton for Vogg’s riffs at open, but filling in tendon and sinew as his double-kicks enter the fray. It’s one of the thrashiest tracks on the album, Sauron struggling to spit out his words in time. The haltingly descending riffs Vogg lays down after the first verse are absolutely fantastic, and hint at the usage a similar one will see later on in “Nine Steps”. There’s a peculiar and spiralling, chunky mid-section that ends each of Sauron’s following lines, seeming to circle itself to avoid tripping, eventually finding its gait and slinking along on the smooth tremolo we heard in “The First Damned”. Vogg’s solo is distorted and strange–perhaps even more Azagthoth-y, for its vague dissonance and experimental nature, though as is true of most, it maintains just a bit more melodicism than Trey’s usual blasts of “lava”. The outro is another fade, but it manages to include some flashes of lead we don’t hear a lot of in a single-guitarist band.
    “Human’s Dust” seems to be designed to prove that the band has been holding weapons in reserve–the song drops out of the sky fully formed and thick with riff and drum, but breaks itself apart to a bare bones snare-based interlude that turns it to a near black-metal blastbeat-styled passage. Never ones to make their time signature changes and tempo shifts obvious or clumsy, the song seems to shift and change them more readily and constantly than the entire rest of the album, allowing for a solo that combines elements of all the previous ones–perhaps an apex in style, if not flavour. It bends, taps, squeals, and slides along into airy blasts of tremolo arm modulated gusts. 
    Ah, “Nine Steps”. The only rest we’re given before it is the pummeling pounding of Vitek on toms and snare, which lead into a similarly isolated riff from Vogg that is dragged into the maelstrom by Vitek’s slide in on the ride cymbal. The song takes off, Vogg racing over the top of it with his amalgamated lead and rhythm riffing, a few hints of Slayer-esque riffage that are then buried into a more Decapitated-signature sound. There’s a sort of skating riff over an unusual drum beat composed of tight hi-hat rhythmic hissing, which is completely unexpected at this point, yet utterly fitting. But in all of this, the lead is to the best riff on the album: at about two minutes in, the song climbs ever upward and then zooms off, building intense energy that isn’t clearly anticipatory, seemingly resolved by the booming of Vitek’s drums announces the high end tremolo riffing of Vogg. He lays out a stupendously blurred solo that seems to slow the song down to a chugging riff that repeats to only the hiss of ride before the briefest of pauses, hovering on the brink, then leaping off to zig-zag from channel to channel as it descends. The riff is a sudden change in feel and that brilliant moment before it drops down only serves to make the drop that much more delicious, ending the song on its third repetition, quite abruptly.
    As is often the case with metal bands, “Dance Macabre” appears at the end, not unlike “The Flames of the End” appearing at the end of Slaughter of the Soul, though this more closely resembles the booming, ominous synthetic inclusions of black metal bands, such as the earliest moments of Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. It functions best as an outro, of course–it would come off strangely, at best, in the middle of the album. It is a nice vent for the heat the album has built to this point though–moody, spooky, like a cult horror soundtrack (hence the association with “The Flames of the End”).
    The vinyl includes the previously international-only (don’t ask me which international–maybe their home Polish version lacked it, or Earache’s home UK, or the U.S. version, or maybe none of them–it’s not a genre prone to meticulous record-keeping, to be honest) cover of Slayer’s 1988 South of Heaven track “Mandatory Suicide”. Our Polish boys speed it up only slightly, and give it the more full crunch of death metal–somewhat “thicker” than the mid-high orientation of late 80s metal production and thrash metal in general. Sauron’s voice continues to be an interesting surprise, especially when compared to the already somewhat higher pitches of Tom Araya–nevermind when compared to the booming rumble of our young Polish lad. As “bonus tracks” go with covers–there’s not much to say beyond the quality: it’s a nimble and appropriate cover, that manages to blur their style in with the original, neither laying an overt kind of mutated claim to it, nor merely servicing it.
    Decapitated’s biggest claim to fame I have thankfully left out until now: At the time of recording, Sauron was 17 years old, as was Vogg. Martin was 15. And Vogg’s little brother? Vitek had just turned 15 himself. As if that wasn’t “bad” enough, they recorded and released their first–very professionally performed–demo two years earlier.
    This is a ridiculously professional, well-played, well-recorded, and well-written album–it can easily stand next to seasoned professionals, and clobber almost any starters. It doesn’t make a big deal out of its technicalities, nor fail to achieve them in the first place. If, indeed, it’s not so complicated as it sounds to my unprofessional ears (though that is one thing I’ve never heard contested about the band, even by the snobs), it’s still well done enough that it sure as hell sounds like it. And that’s an unbelievable strength, especially in a sub-sub-genre like “technical death metal”. And no, I didn’t make that up. It’s occasionally crossed with (indeed, sometimes synonymous with) “brutal death metal”, a designator that generally indicates the unfamiliar should be wary, as much of what I’m still wont to call “wankery” is likely to be present–that is, the masturbatory self-indulgences of proving technical skill. While Decapitated may prove they have exactly that, they don’t do so at the expense of songwriting at any moment on the album.
    I may have softened to the idea of “brutal” or “technical” death metal in general–or, perhaps, Decapitated helped it to grow on me in the first place. Certainly, it was because of Sauron’s constant appearances in Immolation shirts that I eventually picked up that incredibly excellent band that occupies the same genre-space–even rendering my favourite “tech-death” album of all: Close to a World Below. They also helped to refine my taste in death metal, to direct me somewhat toward what I would like later, and away from the sinking notion that, in my limited ability to explore (as well as the handful of recommendations I had to receive then), I was stuck with the “gore-porn” lyrics that once defined death metal (I’m not a Cannibal Corpse fan, though I do love the heck out of Carcass). Despite the name, Decapitated effectively never touched on this–their album titles as well as their song titles seem to make that clear, but I’ll state it openly here as well. They’re lyrics that reflect–well, misanthropy and nihilism, perhaps most explicitly stated in the title track from their second album: “Nihility (Anti-Human Manifesto)”–there’s no sense of elitist dismissal of others, so much as full-on, general misanthropy, and blame laid at the feet of an all-too-deserving human race.
    I also can’t say enough about Sauron’s voice: it defines much of what I want out of a death metal vocalist, as he sounds somewhat inhuman, but not as if it’s a strain so much as a shift in gears for him. Some vocalists grate, others are ho-hum, but Sauron’s perfect blend–sometimes criticized for this–manages to insinuate itself more completely into the band’s music and function perfectly on that level.
    I know, as always, my endorsement of a metal album is meaningless to metal fans and worse to those who hate the genre, but this album receives my highest recommendations all the same. The band wandered into entirely different territory that was hinted at with The Negation and fully realized after Sauron was replaced by Adrian “Covan” Kowanek for Organic Hallucinosis, furthered yet by the exit of all but Vogg for 2011’s Carnival Is Forever. Of course, the interceding years were distinctly unkind to the band: in 2007, a bus accident left then-vocalist Covan in a coma, and killed the 23-year old Vitek. Sadly, this is now the new face of the band’s immediate introductions. Would that we were still just talking about how young they all are.
    In any case, if you are willing to look into a full-fledged metal album and its aggression, give this one a spin–if you’re open to the idea, there’s no way it could disappoint.
    ¹Interestingly, Vogg auditioned to be the second guitarist for Morbid Angel, after Erik Rutan left to take on Hate Eternal full time. Funny, these “full circle” things.
    ²If you stop and peruse those reviews: welcome to the online metal community. Never will you find more harsh critics determined to convince others of the quality of their taste, and their superiority to almost any offering. Strict personal rules are applied vindictively, and no leeway is given to…anything. I didn’t last long, taste-wise, in such communities. I never do. Still, you will find that, barring the absurdly negative reviews of Nihility, it ends up just below Winds of Creation. Their (adjusted) scores are approximately 86% and 93% respectively, which also lines up with anecdotal experience of opinions. But, seriously, I don’t recommend dealing with the self-important nonsense that bleeds into that community endlessly. It’s tiresome posturing and pissing contests in almost every internet incarnation. When I saw Decapitated live, however, it was the most polite show I’ve ever been to, despite them playing along with Suffocation–unlike the more popular forms of aggressive music, everyone was given space and allowed to go about things in their own way. 
    ³Trey Azagthoth (aka George Emmanuelle III, no I’m not kidding) is the guitarist for Morbid Angel. He refers to his solos as “lava”, at least with respect to the compilation of them entitled Love of Lava.