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”.


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.

    Day Fifty-One: Darkest Hour – The Eternal Return

    Victory Records ■ VR495-1

    Released June 23, 2009

    Produced and Mixed by Brian McTernan

    Side One: Side Two:
    1. Devolution of the Flesh
    2. Death Worship
    3. The Tides
    4. No God
    5. Bitter
    1. Blessed Infection
    2. Transcendence
    3. A Distorted Utopia
    4. Black Sun
    5. Into the Grey


    After a forced hiatus (stemming from borrowed cars and loaner couches), I am in a position again to write here and take up where I left off. It was fortuitous in many ways that this came when it did, as it gives me a chance to try to put into effect some ideas I had for how to go about this process.

    Darkest Hour is one of those bands I found myself listening to more by chance than almost anything else. In the midst of my earliest experiences with metal–wherein I was leaping from the then-popular “nu-metal” acts straight into extreme metal of the “death” variety–I was left somewhat rudderless, but still quite fully powered. I turned this way and that, able to listen purely for enjoyment’s sake and nothing else, as I gathered up the sounds that I liked without regard for community reputations, obeisance to or violations of trends or traditions, and without even internal expectations. It was a nice time in this respect–one soured quickly by my first community of musically-oriented folk in the heavier direction. The scattered voices I heard prior were also similarly isolated, and shared that lack of socially inflicted focus.

    It was about ten years ago, of course–“The Sadist Nation” had been dropped digitally (before that was actually “a thing” of complete normality), and it perked up my ears. I was still only recently introduced to At the Gates and so the “Swedish sound” was still new to me, and Hidden Hands of a Sadist Nation was quite enjoyable. Of course, it was somewhere around the beginnings of political awareness, too, and 2003 was a moment rife with subject matter for a band whose metal sound was the kind fused with the political consciousness of the hardcore scene (hence “metalcore”). It was a lengthy album,¹ and a relentless one–the songs blasted out until the instrumental closer, “Veritas, Aequitas”, which was a 13-minute (!) ‘epic’ (if you can pardon the usage of that word in this day and age) that employed the guitars of Marcus Sunesson of The Crown and Peter Wichers of Soilwork, both Swedish bands in the style the band has employed throughout their career. Indeed, At the Gates’ own Tomas Lindberg and Anders Björler appeared on the album (in “The Sadist Nation” and “Misinformation Age” respectively), and even Slaughter of the Soul producer Fredrik Nordström acted as producer for the album.

    I worked my way backward and around the band, eventually snapping up a copy of the label Southern Lord’s reissue of The Mark of the Judas on clear vinyl, mostly on the back of the beautiful “Part 2”, an instrumental, cello-driven piece the band did on that album. The follow-up to it–the album just prior to Hidden Hands–was So Sedated, So Secure, and has always struck me as the most “straightforward” of their albums, containing no notably, obviously exceptional pieces (ie, like “Part 2” and “Veritas, Aequitas”), and a lost thread as the Devin Townsend produced albums that followed (Undoing Ruin and Deliver Us) broke the band even further into melodically-heavy tracks and abandoned the very hefty runtime of Hidden Hands.

    When they returned to the hands of producer Brian McTernan (who produced The Mark of the Judas and So Sedated, So Secure previously) for this album, it felt like a leap backward in style–not necessarily backward in the negative way so much as an indication of a return to the riff-oriented, consistently heavy and aggressive style they’d begun to slip away from with Undoing Ruin and Deliver Us. Not a surprise, I suppose–McTernan’s own ties are more into hardcore, and he has also produced a lot of my more recent fascinations, like Snapcase, Cave In, and Piebald.

    “Devolution of the Flesh” rides in on wobbling squalls of distortion and pounds in with the ever-consistent and omnipresent drumming of Ryan Parrish, who has always had a style that fills out tracks more completely than a lot of drummers choose to, not so much in the relentless fill style of Mastodon’s Brann Dailor (if you don’t know–Brann notoriously can’t seem to let any beat pass without a fill that modifies it just a bit) as it is just a very fully-formed and performed beat. Mike “Lonestar” Carrigan has taken over lead guitar duties from Kris Norris, but a large portion of the song is based on riffs and forward movement from them. It does have a bit of a pull in a lead  that never quite reaches a solo, and instead feels more like it’s attempting to break away from the riffs. John Henry’s cries of “You’re a plague, you’re a plague/And you feed off the youth but it won’t keep you young”, leave him in the more quasi-personal, but possibly political range they occupied on the last two albums (though one is inclined to belief that prior address of “you war-pig fuck”, for instance, on said prior albums had a specific object in mind). Henry’s voice is fully developed by now, which makes the final closing note that matches his last yell of “You’re a plague” stop the song on a dime, quite authoritatively and juicily.

    There’s a favourite guitar trick of the band’s (based on its relative commonality, I’m guessing it’s that of founding rhythm guitarist Mike Schleibaum) in “Death Worship”–an opening guitar that comes in for a moment with the band as a whole but drops to one channel (in this case, the left) and plays off the song’s primary riff with no accompaniment, the sound deliberately thinned to emphasize this and thus underscore the re-introduction of the rest of the band when it ends. When the charging riff and Parrish’s pounding drums come in, the sort of folk likely to say “These songs all sound the same,” are likely to open their mouths–which is really what I mean about the album: it’s a return to consistent kinds of songwriting, not in the sense of uneven quality on previous albums, but in a greater expansion of sonic palette (including the strange, ideologically questionable but largely successful moments that John actually sang, in a sense, on some tracks). The drop to a single channel guitar is employed a few more times in the track, as it allows the riff to be highlighted before it becomes part of the song’s entire sound. It’s a signature move, really. There are still threads of the extreme melodicism that Townsend’s production introduced to the band, with Carrigan’s two-tone see-saw lead that draws the ending half of the song outward most clearly echoing this, even if he was not present for those sessions.

    There’s nothing quite like a good latter-day hardcore or death metal wordless roar employed correctly, and “The Tides” makes use of one, Parrish giving just a moment’s reprieve from the aggressive riffing to allow John Henry to open his throat and bellow over the firmly rhythmic riffing that is so indicative of the band’s style. A flurry of tremolo riffing and climbing chords draws clear and very solid lines behind Henry as he does some of his most tempo-defying vocals, pausing between lines, and holding them despite the rapid and clear beat Parrish (as ever) puts behind him. Carrigan gets to drop his first solo–the kind that Norris used to lay into the band’s tracks on previous albums to the joy of many. It’s a full set of tapping waves, and leads into a solo from Schleibaum that more closely resembles the distinctly blues-based approach of 70s heavy metal–bends and high notes, certainly, but more picked strings than tapped ones. One of the best parts is hearing the sneer enter John’s voice as he howls out the final words, echoing his prior chorus ending ones, but taking them further:  “And you fool and you fake/Like it’s all been arranged/And you wax and you waaaaane”–and you think it’s going to go on, but it just ends on that last word, and somehow it makes sense afterward.

    I do believe “No God” was released prior to the album as a lead track, and made clear to listeners (me, at least) that the album was going to be riff-heavy again, with the furiously mechanical drumming of Parrish drawing a clear tempo for the song under the strongly defined chords of the introduction, rapid bass kicks turning to a blast beat and Schleibuam and Carrigan cramming as much as they can into each of his beats. The chorus, though–as is often the case with metal, a distinctly irreligious (to put it mildly) tone develops: “Keep waiting, keep waiting for”–and then the song drops, not to a breakdown, but to the booming of defined and clear beats: “NO God to release you/NO God to make you fall to your knees” which a lightning fury of falling fingers brings back to verse. The sudden change in feel, the squealing guitar lines and double-tracked vocals on the first two words seem intended to leave no doubts as to Henry’s meaning, though the song actually marks the appearance of a beautiful and somewhat unexpected solo: the rising wave of flowing tremolo picks that seem to crest like undulations in a surface that remains unbroken, the higher notes curved off to avoid any sense of piercing. While the stick-poking provocation of the song might’ve been at least a partial motivator, it also makes sense as a single track when Schleibaum’s sizzling solo wails its way out and establishes, finally, the band’s sound for the album. When Henry finally starts repeating “There’s no God to bear your burdens/There’s no God/There’s no God/There’s no God/No, it’s all an illusion”, it feels like an antitheistic declaration in anthemic form.

    “Bitter” is a blistering blur of a minute and a half, at first seeming it will be a continuance of the threaded melodies in thrash, but it’s beaten into an absolute flurry of aggression after only twenty seconds, the kind of song that screams “mosh pit” to me, even as a non-mosher–it would describe the chaotic swirl of the worst of slam dancers happily and easily, even sliding in the vague atonal squeals of a Kerry King style-lead for a few moments.

    “Blessed Infection” has a great opener, pounding down a slowly falling melody, then turning to the brief, near-staccato chords Darkest Hour knows best, though Carrigan infuses them with some clear lead playing. Another strong contender for tracks to lead with, the centerpiece is a pair of closely tied solos that again exhibits the two different playing styles present–but it also leaves room for one of my favourite games in music–is this a typo or a clever indication of how flexible English is? “Contagious and spreading/It’s blessed infection”–is that a deliberate contraction, or a mistaken possessive? Either works–even works in the context of the lines surrounding it.

    “Transcendence” is the song that most appealed to me in-and-of itself when it appeared, the chugging rumble of Parrish, Paul Burnette’s bass, and one guitar riffing low is used as backdrop for subtle sparks of guitar that seem to draw arcs instead of lines between the beats, as if they are weaving over and under each of them. That they are done in that almost-immediately-muted riffing style Schleibuam has always favoured only helps the impression that they are trying to sneak in between beats. “It’s a self-made misery/It’s a blatant blasphemy/But all we need is a little transcendence to mend us/But all we have is sedation that numbs all our senses”, Henry comes as close to singing as he ever does on this album–it’s an excellent chorus, not reaching too far outside the bounds established by the instruments, while still rising enough to be phonetically punctuated with emphasis on each monosyllabic word. A subded, watery moment part way through that is hammered back down by clearly spaced instruments gives the whole track a greater balance, too, without, again, losing track of the song itself.

    Recalling the relentless anger of Hidden Hands, “A Distorted Utopia” has one of the absolute best riffs on the album–it’s very light on interest in melody as it starts, Ryan’s drums consistent but polyphonic and heavy. But it’s that riff dives below the surface and tugs rapidly at the lower end, rising only slightly to halve its speed and undercut its own height with a firm and definitive set of low notes. It’s the kind of riff that drives metal’s best “heavy” moments–not a completely standard, tired trope, but one that is both familiar and viscerally engaging. Carrigan puts in another of his smoothed out liquid solos that won’t break the surface, and it ends with the scattered, jagged guitars of a momentary breakdown that avoids the archetypal one of modern “hardcore” to remain relevant to the song.

    It’s another recall of the consistent tone of So Sedated for “Black Sun”, Parrish drawing a clear and largely “simple” beat that Schleibaum, Carrigan, and Burnette leave inviolate, vines and ivy crawling across it as decorative rather than defiant in their more varied tonalities. The two guitars pair up for a dual lead solo, but keep the actual pitches rather in check, higher than the rest, but sticking within a reasonable range of each other, or at least not making too sudden a jump at any point.

    There’s honestly no chance, I think, that Darkest Hour can ever top “Tranquil” from Undoing Ruin as a closer, as it deals with the drums in one of my favourite ever ways–the kind that will inspire the desire to pound out the rhythm alongside it, much like one might feel the desire to punch the air in expression of extreme joy or success. It’s interesting, though, that “Into the Grey” musically straddles “Tranquil” and Hidden Hands closer “Veritas, Aequitas”–it’s a normal length, fully vocal song, but it has the rising tones and pulsing drama of “Veritas”, as well as the alternating aggressive, “normal” passages of “Tranquil”. It has the appropriate sense of final drama to close the album and is utterly appropriate in its placement, the kind that fills a room and spreads across it, drops in a note of menace and threat in its final moments then just hangs and lingers when it suddenly ends.

    Darkest Hour, I’ll admit, tripped me up when writing–who amongst those who read this would find either gratification or even perverse confusion in my ownership of so many of their albums? Who would think “Of course”, or “Why in the hell…?” on seeing that, rather than maybe “Oh,” or “I have no idea what that is”? It was, then, somewhat lucky I found myself in a forced hiatus now–how, in particular, was I to touch on this band, one I know will not ring out with the non-metal folks, of whom I know many, or with the metal folk I do know who don’t even have this name bouncing around much in their circles?

    It called out for a re-arrangement of my approach to writing about an album–it’s exhausting and frustrating to try to literally describe an album as it happens, and sometimes feels like a lot of effort for an end result of questionable value to any reader, as well as the kind most subject to both “correction” or disagreement in the least helpful of ways–my description, written as factual explanation, failing to coincide with another’s experience does little to elucidate why it is I’m listening in the first place. Certainly, I attempted to weave commentary in as possible, but it made the act one of a kind of dread. Darkest Hour is a comfort to me, in a sense–their albums are all ones I enjoy, and none run off into territory that feels unlike the band, though they mark themselves out as separate quite readily all the same. Ending up finding all of them on vinyl that was not only coloured but coloured differently for each release was truly gratifying.

    I remember passing “The Sadist Nation” to a group of hardcore-complainers (that is, complainers about hardcore, not people who were hardcore about complaining) nervously, wondering if it exhibited all of their concerns about the tiresome clichés–though it has a sort of “breakdown”, it passed muster, even as it fell out of favour for being too in keeping with the ever-melodic sounds of Sweden (that it has vocals from Lindberg wouldn’t help that notion). I also remember the worst review I’ve ever read on the perennially internally-inconsistent AllMusicGuide (which has a habit of saying things like “A really great album” and then rating it 2/5–indicating sometimes someone other than the rater is writing): it dismissed Hidden Hands of a Sadist Nation on the grounds that John Henry’s death metal-inflected hardcore yelling (it’s very dry, somewhat hoarse, and is closer to an amplification of hardcore styled barks than it is the inhuman growling of death metal) sounds like it does. It was quite useless in this respect–as if someone said, “This Bill Evans album is stupid because I hate pianos.” Well, that’s lovely–someone who has interest in a style or genre that is known for that very instrument could warn the unfamiliar that it sounds as such, then evaluate the material in that context.

    It was the only complaint I ever felt was worth sending AllMusic, as it was the most worthless review I could imagine–and a very strange blot on their discography on the site: one and a half stars amidst largely positive reviews that stay at 3.5 and 4 following it (though the reviewer who tackled So Sedated shared my feelings about its rather lackluster songs–similar to my sentiments about the Foo Fighters’ One by One, but that’s something else entirely).

    In any case, this is probably not the first album I’d suggest to most people looking into this band–even of the post-Kris Norris (for some reason, vaunted as the only reason the band was ever worth listening to, which I’ve found ever-confusing, as it seemed to only apply on 2/3 of the albums he appeared on) set, of which I’d first suggest the last entry, The Human Romance. They’ve always been a very sincere band, though–not feeling like they are trying too hard to reach metal folks, embrace hardcore, or otherwise be anything they aren’t. John Henry’s early look was very short hair and thick black-rimmed glasses (though he’s now seen without those frames and with long hair)–and they’ve been seen on tape discussing Sex and the City, with fun poked at each other but little judgment. Their appreciation of their Swedish forebears was obvious in sound, but embraced openly with all the choices made for Hidden Hands. The Eternal Return, though, is a bridge backward to link the Townsend-produced albums with the material to follow.

    ¹I do have it on vinyl now, and I own most of Darkest Hour’s oeuvre on vinyl–it’s the only 2xLP, though Victory did press it with the re-recorded version of “For the Soul of the Saviour” that was on the deluxe edition CD re-release of the album–but that isn’t at all what pushed it over the edge.

    Day Forty-Four: Converge – Axe to Fall

     Deathwish Inc. ■ DWI98

    Released October 20, 2009

    Produced, Engineered, and Mixed by Kurt Ballou
    Mastered by Alan Douches

    Side One: Side Two:
    1. Dark Horse
    2. Reap What You Sow
    3. Axe to Fall
    4. Effigy
    5. Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast
    6. Wishing Well
    7. Damages
    1. Losing Battle
    2. Dead Beat
    3. Cutter
    4. Slave Driver
    5. Cruel Bloom
    6. Wretched World

    I’ve always been wary of the “hardcore” scene, such as it has been described and defined for the last, oh, decade and a half. What once was Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and D.O.A. was now something else entirely–something that was often difficult to relate to the music that first bore the name. Hardcore at this time was also plagued with clichés readily pointed out–the inevitable breakdowns, where the pace slowed and the riffs chugged and boomed to encourage the sense that the bottom had dropped out and all hell had broken loose, which is a difficult thing to do constantly to any real effect. At the same time, I didn’t listen to many of those bands in any detail, either. But it meant that when the name Converge was mentioned, I tended to leave them to their fans, stuck a bit in my own metal pseudo-elitism. I would periodically hear of them in a tone of reverence even from those who were more active in their criticism of this new “hardcore”, which I filed away in the back of my mind and left be for some time.

    It wasn’t until I, for some reason, had “Dark Horse” dumped in my lap that my ears perks quite suddenly. I didn’t care what this was “supposed” to be according to other people–this sounded great. I actually made a trip out to a semi-distant Borders (the source, thanks to my then-employee discount, of much of my music at the time) to pick up a copy of this very album, Axe to Fall on CD. I found myself enjoying it a lot more than I ever thought, no longer left with the impression that most of the bands associated gave me–the feeling of enthusiastic but amateurish attempts to work songs into territory that was “cool”, as most clearly defined by the idea of “breakdowns”. Converge not only didn’t break down, they didn’t seem to have any of the lumps or uneven points that came along with bands that seemed to really, really want to recreate their favourite sounds, but make them their own.

    I picked up their earliest albums as I ran across them, and eventually even filled out most of the gaps that came between those and Axe to Fall as time went on. About a month ago, I picked up All We Love We Leave Behind, their latest album (about three months after it was released). This record, though, I found on one of my excursions into the record stores that are (not all that) close to where I live now. I was casually flipping through the metal records and saw the distinctive cover, and the small sticker in the corner that said “Yellow Vinyl”. I’m nothing if not a sucker for picking up an album I already like when I’m told it’s on coloured vinyl–for good or ill, that often gets me immediately. Because it was used (if briefly, or perhaps even not much at all), it was in an open sleeve. When I saw this bright, radioactive, translucent colour, I knew I was going home with it regardless–and so I did. Because it came around in the middle of my transition between homes, I didn’t get much chance to spin it. Even more so, I was spending most of my time at my parents’ house, as they lived in the area I’ve since moved into, and it allowed me to establish myself job-wise while I worked out the living end of things–and playing Converge in a home that you know isn’t going to appreciate it, well, it just tends to seem rude.

    The most amusing review I ever read of the album was one that suggested that the first time you listened to the album, “Dark Horse” might make you feel that you’ve suffered a mis-mastered CD, or some sort of malfunction in your player, one that has caused it to play a good bit too fast. And that’s not unfair, really: Ben Koller’s drum intro seems like it’s trying to prove itself to those nearby–“I’m fast, guys, I swear!” only it has the unsubtle tinge of actually being not just fast but clean and tight, contrasted especially with the distorted wobble of absurdly low (downtuning is nearly endemic in metal or metal-influenced musicians) bass from Nate Newton. A single note rings out from Kurt Ballou’s guitar, his pick slides back down the neck, and then his fingers fly. “Dark Horse” has one of my favourite-ever heavy riffs, a reasonably high-pitched, tremolo-picked flurry of fingers that seem to be finding the strings beneath them too hot to stay at any point for more than a moment, trying leaps as large as they can to prevent too severe a hot “foot”. Jacob Bannon’s vocals are shouted at a seeming distance, somewhat hidden in the mix as is not unusual for much of heavier music, but actually relatively clear: “For all those born to serve/And all those that chose to hide/Let their sadness be our blessing/Let their losses lead the way”, and then Kurt works up to a precarious precipice, teetering and then falling off–but not to anything like a breakdown, unless one were to forget that these typically imply a slowed pace. Now roaring, Bannon continues (“The dark horse will one day come/To free the light from all of us”), as Koller pummels the bass kicks in rapid succession. The band then sounds like the sheer power and energy of their work is trying desperately to make a u-turn back to the initial riff without slowing any or at all–there’s a short moment of scattered, slightly slowed guitar, like the beast is braking just enough to make that turn, and then they are off into that lightning run again. After the chorus–the roaring and double-kick–plays a second time, the pace actually does slow, Koller mostly hitting a steady 1,2,34 on the hi-hat, the 1s punctuated with a chord from Newton’s bass and Koller’s kick, Ballou’s guitar at only double that speed, high and jagged, slashing up and down in a zig-zag that is all peaks and valleys and no trips toward them. Koller’s snares and bass and Ballou’s guitars gradually work the song back upward, until a massive moment of breakdown that doesn’t let up the energy or force of the song to this point dissipate in service of a “moment” for the audience: it’s the crush of the song itself manifest, not a contrivance.

    If you aren’t listening carefully or paying attention, the whinging feedback of Ballou’s guitar as it bleeds into “Reap What You Sow” might not clearly delineate the move into another song, even though the rapid hi-hat tapping of Koller suggests a sort of count-off. When Ballou’s riffs come in, it’s a sudden onslaught, lurching forward and balanced or propped by a rapid series of all snare hits from Koller–this is not a common sound in this kind of music, and does belie the origins in the hardcore punk segment of music, less brutal aggression of extreme metal and more the impassioned anger of hardcore punk. On an album loaded with guests, the first makes his appearance here: Sean Martin, briefly in Hatebreed, takes on the lead guitar part and backing vocals. A lovely tom fill from Koller spins the song into the verse where Martin’s guitar makes its voice heard, racing along a thin vein beneath Jacob’s roar, which sounds here–as in most places–like someone shouting full-bore into cupped hands around a microphone (no small wonder this is how he is most often seen performing). The song is most fascinating because it doesn’t seem to relate strongly to any familiar structure at all: the initial riff and snare hits suggest something that is being held just barely in check, not the beginning of a song, and the way it races under Martin’s lead after that feels normal until it’s broken into more distinct strikes, Koller’s drums trying to slow the juggernaut down as the guitars rise in pitch, pushing against the attempted slowdown. And then the lead falls down in a smooth arc back into the racing lead–which again is left to fight against the drums’ attempt to slow things down. A brief pause for a blur of otherwise solo, steady snare hits turns the song to a gallop that features Martin’s solo. A final pummeling assault that gradually gains the emphasis of relentless double kicks, roaring from Martin and Bannon and the screeching encouragement of guitars turns again to squeals of feedback.

    Interestingly, the feedback that opens “Axe to Fall” is not of the kind that steamed out at the end of “Reap What You Sow”, but is instead the anticipatory kind that projects a just-turned-on amp, which lasts less than a moment before everyone follows the deliberately separated syllables of Bannon’s words: “Wai-ting for the axe to fall/Wai-ting for the axe to fall“, Koller’s drums again coming out at the end like brakes on the frenzied guitar. Ballou turns in a more subtle feat of finger-dancing, a lower, less apparent series of fretboard histrionics. Experiencing the first distinct tempo shift, the latter half of “Axe to Fall” is the closest to an actual breakdown the album experiences, but it doesn’t trade the rough edges of violence present previously for clarity and rhythmic emphasis.

    “Effigy” brings in the work of Cave-In (recorded five years prior, before their hiatus began–one that ended the year this album was released), the band named somewhat strangely for a Codeine song. While Cave-In were at the end of their more accessible “space rock” phase that included a major label appearance, it was quickly turned aside for a return to their post-hardcore/metalcore roots when this was recorded, and it shows. J.R. Connors throws a more snare-oriented drumming style at the bass of the band, while Steve Brodsky and Adam McGrath use a more clean (but still appropriate) style to burn out blistering leads over the throaty yells of Bannon.

    A few moments in the album are distinctly different from the short-lived (consistently under three minutes, occasionally under two) style that defines much of hardcore, and “Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast” is the first of these. A slightly dissonant but intensely distorted guitar riff plays at what now feels like a ponderous pace, creeping along to a sharpened peak, hanging and holding with threat and warning. Holding at the last, Koller, Newton, and Bannon join Ballou for a now meaty, crunchy version of the same: the pace has not changed, but now each note is bearing the weight of bass and drums behind it, Bannon’s voice the only thing not so clearly aligned with the otherwise magnetic thrum of that rhythm. Lingering distortion marks the first clear trade in vocals: taking on a rather Neurosis-style vocal, Ballou howls over flams from Koller, even and slowed. Between his lines, they all pound out a rhythmic forward movement, the second line followed by Newton, Ballou, and Bannon all expelling the words of the title in unison, pausing after each as no word is swallowed or given only half an effort. The sludge/doom sound is let free after this, Ballou’s guitar suddenly almost clean, pretty and melodic, but the pounding of toms from Koller turns them creepy, as Ballou and Bannon begin to whisper/sing (!) quietly: “The worms will find a way/The rats will find a way…” Ballou’s distortion is unleashed, as Bannon’s voice grows to its dry shout, and Ballou’s follows it shortly, the tension building and building into a final few strikes that Koller drums into a brief continuation, repeating this loop as if to prolong things, before it all turns slowly downward in pitch.

    I don’t know how Ballou creates the guitar sound he does to open “Wishing Well”, but I’ve heard it a few other times, and it’s a great sound: a quavering, feedback-laden sustain, one that it appears can’t be completely steadied as it twists around itself. Allowed to play it in isolation, he is suddenly joined by Koller’s tension building snare hits, before a bass-thumping punk-style rhythm sets the song off. Former Entombed and current Disfear (a band which is currently fronted by Tomas Lindberg from At the Gates) guitarist Ulf “Uffe” Cederlund raises sheets of tremolo-picked wash over the throbbing toms of Koller, and joins Bannon for the chorus with his own voice.

    Dry, palm-muted, unusually calm riffing only periodically accentuated by a sudden thrum of bass and an unintrusive drum beat mark the opening of “Damages”, implying a continuation of the kind of pace that typified “Worms Will Feed”. Koller starts the song off though, and Ballou’s briefly freed strings are turned to aggressive, more open, chunkier but still muted riffing, now anchored with the steady swinging strokes of bass on similar notes. An icing of higher, semi-harmonic tones branches out over it, and we’re left with a song that actually falls somewhere in the middle of previous tempos. Tim “Trivikrama Dasa” Cohen takes on lead guitar duty, and the feel is that of a machinistic deliberation, tempered only by the vocals of Bannon through the beginning, and those of Ballou when the song becomes a more low-end chugging toward the end, belching black smoke and menace, despite the decreased tempo. Dasa’s lead slips and slides and squeals over the final moments of the song, and of Side One, a final sludge of thudding riffs and drumming pounding out to the final note and only the brief ring of feedback.

    “Losing Battle” lets Koller really shine with a complicated and interesting, shifting and rapid drum pattern, Ballou’s riffs grinding in the front but not matching the interesting drumming Koller lets loose, even when it changes briefly to a simpler and then a more rapid but still comparatively simple one (largely blast beats–snare-bass-snare-bass). Bannon snarls over the top (“Nothing left to lose”) and Ballou occasionally answers (“When I’m losing you”), the song charging ever-forward, before the final refrain of Bannon ends it: “Losing the battle/Losing the war”, and they crunch out two riffs to bring it to a dead stop.

    There’s a hint of the very opening of “Dark Horse” at the start of “Dead Beat” in Koller’s frantic drumming, but Ballou’s almost chiming lead gives the lie to that notion. A brief moment of martial drumming (albeit that of troops that must be related to Barry Allen) transitions the song into its vocal portion, where Bannon’s voice is unusually melodic, calling to mind some weird amalgamation of Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto of Fugazi–the shout of MacKaye, the melody of Picciotto (all else aside, it’s not a mystery why his first band was considered emotive hardcore), with an actual sound that falls somewhere between them, too. Ballou’s guitar is melodic, too, and less abrasive than previously. When Koller catches them up in his snares (heh!), it’s only to throw them into the heat of Bannon’s shouts and the swirling aggression of more meaty riffing, the higher pitches back to dissonance and pierce. It’s very subtle when it slips back to the more melodic approach on both their parts, though–almost unnoticeable.

    With a guest only on backing vocals (a la “Axe to Fall” earlier), “Cutter” is from the point of view of someone who would be described as exactly that, with the words simple and to the point, describing the emotions that actually motivate this behaviour in empathetic but unapologetic terms, not falling into the simple trap of finding it a dangerously stupid act so much as the reaction of someone unsure what else to do to find relief. The rumble of riffing is largely arranged around kick-heavy drumming from Koller, Bannon’s voice describing the thoughts behind cutting as John Pettibone growls “No way out”, Ballou allowing for thrashy flurries of squealing lead–not in Slayer territory of atonality, but brief and tight. “One way down/No way out” Pettibone shouts as the song rockets forward to its end.

    The last purely Converge track, “Slave Driver” has a white noise of distorted guitar that manages to make the impossible possible: because he’s the only one playing an instrument oriented around melody, Newton’s bass is suddenly more apparent, rumbling out both the melody and deep, thumping accent to Koller’s drumbeat, though a low guitar comes along with him (mixed just below his bass, though, just fattening the sound). Bannon sings in his old school hardcore voice briefly, even, which only serves to make the cries of “No longer feel anyone/No longer fear anything” that much more frighteningly nihilistic and depressed. The song accelerates to and end of repeated abbreviation: “No longer feel/No longer fear!”

    Quite unexpectedly, piano and acoustic guitar (Ballou in both cases) open “Cruel Bloom”, the first voice we hear actually that of Steve Von Till of Neurosis, effecting his best warm and twisty postAsylum (records, not mental institution) Tom Waits. The howling of electric guitar works its way in until it most clearly overlays the choral vocals of Von Till with The Rodeo, Chris Taylor, and Aimee Argote: “Lifelong victims pound and claw at the ground/Searching for a way out of their skin/Writhe in the cruel bloom”. It’s actually a rather pretty, though somber and dark chorus, especially with the emotive guitar punctuating their words. When Koller and Newton join after this chorus, the sense of Tom Waits (or a severely mutated version of Neurosis that eschews their more long-winded and progressive elements) is exaggerated. Newton’s bass is clean, thumping to the deliberate pace of simple 4/4 patterns from Koller. It’s almost like a weighed down, depressed form of Dead Man’s Bones–just to make a completely useless comparison, as that band is not exactly a familiar one to most. Von Till holds the second repetition of “Bloom” alone, his voice gaining the grit that marks the heavier side of Neurosis, as Ballou comes crashing down¹ with a roar of distorted guitar. Von Till’s voice becomes its own hoarse howl, the guitar’s own turning instead to a throaty wail. A slow of the crunchy riff and the wailing guitar extended end the song on a hanging note.

    Continuing the peculiarities of the album for this band (some silly folk felt these two tracks should have been left off), “Wretched World” is largely contorted by J.R. Connors (of Cave-In) and Brad Fickeisen (of The Red Chord) on drums, Hamilton Jordan, Mookie Singerman, and Michael Sochynsky (all of Genghis Tron, on guitars, vocals and keyboard, and keyboard respectively). Chiming distorted harmonics act as a sort of clock announcing the hour throughout (it’s actually quite a neat sound and a nice effect). Electronically distorted voices murmur in the background, Newton’s bass allowed to ring heavily, before beginning to slide methodically around. Forlorn, sliding guitars wander the background, the drums only entering at the two minute mark, Singerman’s voice coming in with the nasal tinge of Mastodon’s cleaner ones (I’d say Brent Hinds’ voice if pressed). It’s a ponderous song, the drums largely toms pounding out large, emphatic beats. The advent of distorted guitars takes four minutes, but they are not used for aggression so much as the washing reverberation that distortion brings when allowed to ring out. Losing out to the chiming harmonics, Bannon’s voice enters and roars out only briefly alongside Singerman’s, the riffs now allowed to hang in the air, the song slowly fading away more completely to just the chiming harmonics, until it all falls to sustained keyboard, the holding noise of distortion and a slow fade.

    The most important aspect of a metal band is not the simple obvious things–aggression, speed, the ability to “mosh” to it, so on. Of course, it may be for some people, but if those are the only necessary factors for quality, almost anything categorized as such qualifies, and some quality material is lost. But then, I suppose the same could be argued for my philosophy. In any case, some bands are labeled consistent with a sort of half-hearted but sincere thumbs up: a good four-out-of-five slapped on and a day called, whenever they release a new album. There are strong bands in this category, and then there are bands in all the wild branches of metal and metal-esque music that are something else. I can call to mind a few that are thought of this way, but those thumbs ups aren’t half-hearted, and the fours turn to fives, and the consistency is not a solid mark, it’s an outstanding one. Converge has had this reputation almost without exception for the entirety of their career. There’s the sense that their albums aren’t just well-written, well-performed sets of songs tossed out as they reach a tipping point in number or total length–the sense that, instead, they are worked and refined, until even the breakneck paced blasts of hardcore aggression themselves feel like thoughtful choices, not simple repetitions.

    The appeal of Converge lies in their ability to create music recognizable as this new breed of hardcore (tinged with metal, in almost every case), but that surprises and innovates as it does so. The rhythms, the patterns and structures of the songs: they are fascinating when broken down, because they are so atypical. Even at an auditory “glance”, too, there’s a different feeling to these than comes from a lot of rather ho-hum material released under this banner.

    Maybe it’s the influence of engineering and production talent in Ballou guiding the group musically. Maybe it’s the influence of art school graduate Jacob Bannon in fashioning lyrics that may tread similar ground but manage to avoid cliché or clumsiness–as well as stunningly effective and striking artwork that has graced their work from the beginning. It’s stylistically striking and distinct, like that of Baroness‘s John Dyer-Baizley, but more gritty and reminiscent of graffiti or screenprinting (which I think does factor into his method), managing to feel well thought out, designed and carefully articulated despite the immediate impressions of “simple” techniques. The cover to Axe to Fall and its colour scheme, simple and limited in palette, are appropriate and clear, and, despite their dark tenor, quite beautiful. Opening a gatefold of Bannon art is breath-taking in that real sense, as may be even better illustrated by the monochrome cover of All We Love We Leave Behind, which becomes vibrant and overwhelming when opened.

    I’ve found that Converge deserves their reputation as not just consistent but consistently excellent, though, like much of metal, they require a willingness to be patient and listen carefully, to hear the way that the sounds are married into what may at first sound like a raging, rabid frenzy of untamed aggression. Their music may, in fact, be somewhat more impenetrable for the fact that it has left behind few of its roots in the barked, abrasive stylings of hardcore–even when it was punk, much of it fit this rubric. But it’s worth doing.

    • Next Up: Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Armed Forces

    ¹I’mt not going to pretend it’s incredibly clever, but this is a subtle nod to an early Converge album, and I feel like that won’t be apparent unless I point it out. Which doesn’t reflect well, of course, but there it is.

    Day Seventeen: Baroness – Yellow and Green

    Relapse Records ■  RR1793

    Released July 17, 2012
    Produced by Baroness and John Congleton
    Engineered and Mixed by John Congleton

    Having just addressed an acknowledged classic, I’m getting a few days of brief reprieve before I have to return to more of that kind of pressure. That this album has been calling out to me since it arrived a few weeks back, left unlistened because it’s the beginning of the alphabet and I knew it would have its place here, only helps to ease that transition and make it a happy one. Now, I was worried enough about the person I purchased it from that I crossed my fingers and gave them a great rating as a seller, but it appears I was not wrong (it was carefully slit but otherwise still in shrinkwrap, as it was described). Of course, when it did arrive, I fell down the stairs of my apartment running to catch the postal worker who had mistakenly gathered I was not home. That was a bad week in general.

    It’s nice, though, to be able to sit down with an album I picked up on CD (in a similar but less showy–and far less expensive–deluxe format) around its release date. I’d intended to pre-order the deluxe vinyl, but they all sold out very quickly, and then I let the whole thing wait. The reviews rolled in as peculiar, enough to take some of the shine off, but not enough to sour me entirely. When the band was involved in a major road accident (vocalist/lyricist/guitarist John Dyer Baizley described it as their “painful test in motorcoach-aeronautics”), they dumped the tour supply of vinyl online, and I found myself late to the races again, but decided to seek out the ideal version–Shiner’s The Egg had recently arrived in my hands, also somewhat delayed, and in the limited orange colouration, but not the “ideal” orange/white split that would match the cover.

    Initially, I’d thought to find the one LP green, one LP yellow edition of the album that was also released in limited quantities, but decided to sate my hunger for a split colouration and get the second most expensive record in my collection (the first is an ultra-limited edition from a run of 250 that is just kind of impressive in general, and it was a present anyway).

    This edition, as you have likely seen by now, is on a split yellow/green platter, or rather, two of them. When I first pulled them out, I was momentarily distressed: it appeared I had been left with two of one. But I looked closer (you can do the same) and saw the labels for each were different–a yellow label for Yellow and a green one for Green (naturally). The packaging itself is a bound hardcover “book” of lyrics and illustrations, with pockets at either cover for the actual records. It’s bound with actual string and not just glue, which I discovered as I was following along and listening to Yellow.

    Because this album follows Red Album and Blue Record, I’ve taken the liberty of splitting this entry into two parts below: one for each record–perhaps each is a sort of separate album to form the whole or perhaps not, (the two-as-one seems to be a common idea these days–System of a Down did it, and Coheed and Cambria are doing it right now–though in both cases the proposed, established, recorded second half appeared as a later item, rather than in an original set) but I’ve decided to treat it that way. There’s a cohesion and a sort of comfortable split between the two, and the records are distinctly labeled by colouration as I mentioned, and also within the CD and the vinyl packaging where the lyrics are printed. Each is a reasonable (if on the short side) length for an album, too. So, without any further ado, this is Yellow and Green.

    Part One: Yellow
    Side One: Side Two:
    1. Yellow Theme
    2. Take My Bones Away
    3. March to the Sea
    4. Little Things
    5. Twinkler
    1. Cocainium
    2. Back Where I Belong
    3. Sea Lungs
    4. Eula

    When “Yellow Theme” starts, it’s clear that one of the biggest complaints that can come out of the metal community was at least accurate regarding this album: a lot of the aggression, weight, heaviness–the metal parts–are not present on this record as they were with Red Album and Blue Record. Of course, there are instrumental introductions to both of those records, but the introduction to the first is part of a larger, much heavier song (“Rays on Pinion”), and the latter begins with “Bullhead’s Psalm” which winds up to the much heavier “The Sweetest Curse”. “Yellow Theme” fades in like “Rays on Pinions”, but it remains its own song: it  is filled with the atmosphere of the whole of Yellow, a kind of water-y sound, with the vaguely distorted echo of something underwater, but absolute clarity in the heavily harmonized guitars. It’s quite pretty, really–something I’ve found is absolutely normal in metal bands, but is taken as surprising to many who aren’t familiar.

    When “Take My Bones Away” begins, you might be left with the impression that you are in for something heavy and abrasive, but as soon as Baizley begins singing, you realized he’s doing exactly that–singing. The riff that precedes his voice is retroactively reassigned by your brain as your expectations are violated: it actually sounds a lot more like something in that vein of heavy metal that came out of the late 60’s and early 70s–Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Cream–not necessarily stylistically, but with the same bent: distorted and crunchy, sure, but it still sounds like a melody to most people (or, at least, I think it ought–people surprise me in their inability to hear melodies sometimes). Baizley’s voice has a lot less edge on this album, which drains a lot of the “metal” element from the band, much to the chagrin of those hoping for that sound. Instead, we’re left with guitars that are on the lower end of sound and willing to hit on quality solos, but a chorus that is catchy and tuneful. The song itself is still a good, powerful opener that brings Yellow as close as it ever gets to metal.

    “March to the Sea” has the clean, harmonized guitars and meandering picking that is signature in most Baroness clean portions, even on prior albums, but shifts to a pounding bass beat and guitars played with a clever set up that makes it sound an awful lot like there’s a set of cellos hiding in there. A close listen betrays the trick–different chords on each guitar, played fast enough to sound more like a bow across strings than those of a guitar being strummed. Baizley and Peter Adams are the ones manning both instruments–or, actually, all, as Baizley covers bass for the studio recording of this album. I’d mention the surprise of Baizley continuing in his more tuneful singing style–but let’s just spoil it: he doesn’t go toward his more yell-esque vocals in basically the entirety of this release. The chorus of “March to the Sea” is one of the best on Yellow, if not the whole release. The words change each time, but manage a personification that is simultaneously obvious, familiar, and nod-inducingly thoughtful: “Valium/You left me all alone/Tell me when I will be whole again” Baizley and Adams call out in unison. There’s a deliberate bass to Baizley’s voice that seems to be a lingering vestige of the stoner/metal origins of the band, but the energy and power of that chorus, which is backed by dancing, restless fingers from Adams that climb up and down (but mostly up) the frets to push the chorus’s sound in the same direction.

    The start of “Little Things” almost sounds more like it will turn into an alt rock song, or something in that vein, and the addition of bass doesn’t quite dissuade this notion, even as the clarity and playing style feel peculiar for that sound. The drum beat (courtesy of Allen Blickle), however, is almost dance-like when it comes in, but it’s matched to that clean, mostly single-string guitar lick, and it shifts the two into a different space where each complements the other. It’s as if the drums are trying to lay a simple groove, and the guitars just won’t stand for it, though they won’t actually break the rhythm to do it. It’s actually a great sound, and drives home the feel of Baroness on the entire record.

    Acoustic guitars and airy keyboards define not only the introduction, but the entirety of “Twinkler”, which sounds odd and disarming at first, until you realize the missing element is any rhythm section. It is almost jarring when Baizley and Adams’ voices begin. There’s the howl of a desolate wind in the background, and their voices sound almost disembodied without anything to anchor the bottom end but a very slow keyboard (also the responsibility of Baizley). It’s an odd sound, like something from a kind of intimate spiritual ceremony–and the limited set of lyrics almost helps this notion.

    The second side of Yellow brings us “Cocainium”, helping to unify the growing second thematic element (drugs, if you aren’t paying attention), alongside water. Curiously, there is some sound at the beginning reminiscent of the keys in Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”, which is a phrase John actually sings at one point in the song–though in the midst of the line and in no kind of pointed way, quite believable as even a coincidence. As with the song that ends the side, “Cocainium” gives the impression of drifting calmly down below the surface of the water, the sounds warbling as if they, too, are falling down through water. Blickle’s steady bass and Baizley’s entrance on bass give the song feet, though, as if the one falling turns in the water–not frantic, but no longer allowing the water to have total control. Blickle pounds the song faster and upward–to only an increased tempo for the wavy guitar, and then an ethereal keyboard, and more of Baizley’s voice with the echoing sound of a tunnel surrounding it, both within the listener and outside; the chorus is another quality one: “Save yourself/By the way/Never ride alone”, he sings, the music turned just a bit quieter beneath him, seeming to pause just as he sings “By the way”, as if turning back and interrupting a forward movement. Distortion drops in unexpectedly, as if the one sinking is now perhaps thrashing against the water, but it slowly gives way again, until it builds a second time to a final crunch.

    An ominous buzz is all we hear at the beginning of “Back Where I Belong”–and we find ourselves either returned from sinking–perhaps into opiate cloudiness–and confused, vaguely cynical about it: “Tell me now/Who’s in charge here?/I thought help was on the way/It took so many years to get out of here/Now I’m back where I belong”. You can’t be sure if where he belongs is relief, resignation, or some combination of the two. The band is occasionally slapped with the label “progressive”, and this is one of the songs that tells us why, as it morphs eventually into expanding keyboard notions.

    Not yet lost from the water, “Sea Lungs” is a description of loss in the face of unexpected entrapment. There’s a kind of renewed strength, “And when my ship comes in/I’ll find a way to breathe again” But it’s followed by a call from the ocean itself to relent and let the water rush in: “Breathe in deep/Let the sea fill your lungs/Better to brace for death/Than die for a promised land”, and we know that it is the ocean itself, not just because it tells us (as it does in the next lines), but because a quaver electronically modifies Baizley’s voice. Still, the final call is to find that way to breathe again, though it’s only after it comes unglued for a moment, the guitar seeming to spring off alone into the deep.

    Whether “Eula” is a pretty name or some strange metaphor (related to End-User License Agreements), I’m not sure. But the song is matched by an illustration from Paul Romano: a dilapidated, boarded up house with a cage built into it, lost in the woods. Baizley is off in the distance, vocally, even when there’s force in his voice, the volume is dampened enough to keep him away, weak, and without power to affect change. The first two minutes pass without Blickle’s drums appearing, but when they do, Baizley’s voice gains strength and clarity. “When my house becomes a cage/And the neighbours turn away/It’s my own blood”, he sings, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that we’re still talking about drugs and addiction, and feeling personal responsibility for the effects loss to addiction–easily seen in metaphors of drowning, too–is what we’re seeing and hearing, though we can’t be sure if it’s internal or described internally. The squeezed solos are like ever-increasing, short-wave spikes, hopping up from zero but contorted and controlled, distorted in sound. When the song itself fades away to tremolo-modified distortion and buzzing, unaltered distortion as he sings “Can’t forget the taste of my own tongue”, we’re not sure if this disappearance into addiction is over and lamented for its happening, or if it’s lamented but not yet over–and if we’re to know, our answers may only come from Green

    Part Two: Green
    Side One: Side Two:
    1. Green Theme
    2. Board Up the House
    3. Mtns. (The Crown & Anchor)
    4. Foolsong
    1. Collapse
    2. Psalms Alive
    3. Stretchmarker
    4. The Line Between
    5. If I Forget Thee, Lowcountry

    The flip of track number balancing between sides of Green and Yellow appeals to some kind of sensibility I have: there’s a mirror imaging to this. But the music itself? Not quite so much a mirror as an alternate world.

    While the drifting, murky, aquatic feel of Yellow might lend itself toward any number of things, the tense whine that begins “Green Theme” seems appropriately dark. And yet, when the guitars and (faint) drums appear, it’s bright and warm, if relaxed and easygoing. And then it explodes: rock guitars, not metal ones, emphatic drums and splash cymbals–like an anthem, stern but cheerful and appreciable. But it’s only a momentary lapse–the guitars slip back into their clean, ringing sound, but they don’t let that anthemic, stomping riff go. It’s a moment like you expect from a solid, slightly-arty (but not full “art-rock”) band–that sort of “epic” feeling, if you’ll pardon the use of a word that now has a memetic colloquial meaning not in line with that which I use it for. The drums then carry the lighter guitars aloft, no longer muting themselves like the guitars–but the buzz and whine taking over: no longer dark, but still quite dissonant.

    This doesn’t tell us much about where “Board Up the House” will take us, nor do the mumbled female voices and growing distortion. And when the song actually catches us, it’s not where it seemed to go, but it is where it went, and there’s nothing jarring about it: a riff that feels half-familiar, staying low, but spiking into higher pitches on each repetition, the rhythm pounded out. But we know Baroness by now–this might all just be introduction for something else. And yet, Baizley’s voice comes in, and we know we’re now comfortable in ascribing a sensation to the song in general. The lyrics don’t seem to lend themselves to the continued anthemic sound: “Board up the house/Hide your boys and girls”, but they are what Baizley sings, in a voice that stays on the pleasant side of tune, descending in a spiral. It’s very far from metal, darkness, or anything that even Yellow, let alone the word “metal” might imply.

    Harmonics are, for all their sort of peculiarity (they involve fingers on guitar strings without real pressure, barring the “fake” varieties and some other “cheats”) are a common thing, and they are used to introduce “Mtns. (The Crown & Anchor)”. Swirling, ringing guitars are the order of the song, but they are matched to the slightly modified (it sounds like a strain of autotune mixed with turning the volume up loud enough to distort) vocals Baizley applies–how did this come out of a band known for stoner rock, on a label like Relapse? I don’t honestly know, but by this point, I was more and more glad I’d gotten to sit down and focus on the album.

    And we have “Foolsong” to close out the side–we’ve not yet really lost the cheerier sound that started Green, even as we now have a song about “The fool who digs his own grave”, but it seems like a final resignation to even a self-dug grave: “It’s too late to ignore the storm up ahead/It’s too dark to see my way out/Now all I can do about anything wrong/Is dig further down”. The words are dark, they’re resigned to suffering and ends, but they aren’t sung or played against anything that fits with this. It’s not like there is a happiness about this prospective movement, it’s as if it’s an acceptance of poor choices and the ramifications of them.

    When “Collapse” opens the final side of the entire set, and it generalizes the tone of “Foolsong”: “We are all soured milk/When we look in the mirror, we collapse/When the time has come/When our finger’s on the trigger, we collapse”. We’re all weak, we’re all corrupted–yet, again, the sound is not cheerful, but it isn’t dark or sad. The guitars quaver and fold in on themselves thanks to an effect, and Baizley’s voice has lost its spark, but it’s still clear and pretty–with the only real hint of sadness present.

    It’s a surprise to hear the start of “Psalms Alive”: an electronic drumbeat, soft, taps away like Morse Code behind keys and guitar that echo and reverberate, and then the voice we hear has regained its spark, and even some energy and aggression. It’s a call of impotence on the narrator’s part, as well as admonition of its addressee, for filling their palms “with dirty bombs, instead of hand grenades”. It sounds almost as if the real crunch will return, but it doesn’t: distortion comes back, but it sounds more like a rock band, perhaps a post punk band, but nothing overbearing. Baizley has energy for the first time in many a song, at least, the first to have this kind of energy: passionate, frustrated, maybe even angry. But after a delightful solo, it dissipates, and we have only waves of melody, which lead us to the easy acoustic duet of “Stretchmarker”. Adams and Baizley play off each other, finger picking, and Blickle submits only a bass kick beat and a shaker to back them, not to drive anything, just to keep the sound full. The song is absolutely beautiful, especially as it opens to feature a single acoustic over everything else, but the second no slouch and answering it wonderfully.

    “The Line Between” is the final song to contain lyrics. I was left with the distinct impression that it describes the realization of reality after an extended period without clarity. It’s not a sudden truth about the absolute beauty of everything, it’s a realization of the hard lines and tangible truth of reality:

    I turned my head up and the sky was empty
    I wasn’t looking for paradise
    And when I asked for comfort from the land of plenty
    I came to realize…
    You have taken this for granted
    Please don’t take it all away
    Feel the light of day. Feel it fade away.
    Walk the line between the righteous and the wicked
    And tomorrow I’ll be gone…

    That final stanza is the chorus, and it’s another magnificent one. The way Baizley sings these is not in the way I’ve heard anyone else sing anything: he’s not a trained expert with amazing range, he’s not a character–it’s something in the way he seems to do everything. The cover art is his as well, which is not unusual, he has also done art and covers for Kylesa, Torche, Black Tusk, Darkest Hour, and even Gillian Welch. His style is incredibly distinct: firm, clear, inked lines, a focus on the female form as a guidepost for the viewer, patterns and water colours, and simultaneously stiff and living art. The inks give it a static, absolute position, yet the way the lines are drawn, the colours are painted, the reality of the proportions–it’s as if it were a perfectly captured moment. And that’s what his vocals are, and that’s what his lyrics are: they are art, and they are poetry, and they are brilliant singing–but they aren’t perfection of any of these, they aren’t the most technically complete, or words you would teach in a poetry class alongside established poets. They just don’t falter despite this: they are refined in their “non-expert” stature. There’s no feeling of awkwardness, there’s no feeling of that amateurishness that can make some things unbearable and other things charming. And yet, it isn’t sterilized in this either; everything he does as art congeals correctly–maybe not perfectly, but as it should for what it is, be it album art, words, or vocal.

    And it’s best that I established those while I could, for the closing track, “If I Forget Thee, Lowcountry” is instrumental. It is a final return to warmth and brightness, like a comfortably breezy day in an isolated field of tall grass, laying back and sleepily taking it in–conscious, but not hurried even in thought. Is it acceptance of the fallibility of man, self, and the willingness to choose an easy or self-destructive path, finding comfort in this? Or is it just taking a final moment of respite to escape even that, let alone the pressures that might lead to it? Either way–or any other way–it lets Green drift off lazily into neither darkness nor sunset, nor even full sun, beating down.

    There are a few final thoughts to leave here. Baroness is one of a handful of bands that I found via status as opening act for a band I saw live, though they are actually one of a more unique pair: Baroness and Kylesa (who have more in common than this, even for me personally) were both to open for Mastodon, the two times I failed to go through with plans to see Mastodon. Both have, curiously, taken over my listening far more than Mastodon. I found myself, though, breezing through Yellow and Green in the past: it was a double album, two discs, nearly two hours of material, and I wanted to hear all of it. I couldn’t easily make that a short car trip to work, or anything else of the kind. This sort of listening is what it demands, though, and is some of what I take out of this experience: the chance to sit and focus on something I might not otherwise have given the chance it deserved.

    I don’t like using some words in talking about music, because they are loaded. I’ve already mentioned that at least a few people I know avoid metal quite readily, but this is far from it. Indeed, as I hinted, many were upset at how far from metal it is. There are easy attempts to align it with understood genres–progressive rock, classic rock, hard rock, so on–but it fits in the niche that Baroness themselves carved. Red Album led the way to the increased instrumental and acoustic passages of Blue Record, and it led on into this: a realization of all the aspects of music that clearly interest Baizley, Adams, and Blickle, but without the expected, slavish devotion to aggression and speed that some metal fans demand.

    It’s a very pretty record, one I’ve got to say deserves your time, even if you’ve never heard of them, or the word “metal” makes you wary.

    • Next Up: Mike Batt and Friends – Tarot Suite