Monday, September 28, 2009

Precious Metal (Da Capo Press)

Precious Metal—Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces, Edited by Albert Mudrian
Decibel magazine has always blended snark with reverence. Columnists J. Bennett and John Darnielle poke fun at the self-seriousness of it all (they kid because they love), while the reviews often spend more time riffing on a band's name than analysing the actual music. The Decibel Hall of Fame feature provides some balance by honouring a legendary metal album (as selected by the editors) every month, dissecting its inner workings with the help of every band member who played on it. It's a brilliant hook that keeps you coming back to check out each new issue.

Precious Metal collects 25 Decibel Hall of Fame articles, arranged chronologically from Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell (1980) to Converge’s Jane Doe (2001). Each chapter expands a little bit on the text from the original magazine articles. I A-B'ed the Napalm Death pieces and identified 2/3 of a page of new material. The book also contains a valuable "bonus feature"—a chapter on Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger, with Fenriz and Nocturno Culto holding court, snarkily. Unfortunately, the book omits the pictures of obscure, often hilarious album-related memorabilia that graced the original magazine layouts. These wouldn’t have reproduced well on the book's paper stock, and colour plates would probaby have been too expensive. All the more reason to buy the magazine every month.

The 25 albums cross all genres from sludge (Eyehategod) to grindcore (Napalm Death) to death (Morbid Angel) to black (Emperor) to post-everything hardcore (Botch). Sometimes Decibel's choices are ingenious—the story behind Sleep’s epic death knell Jerusalem, for example, makes for a fascinating read. Even if you are not a fan of a particular album, the stories surrounding them are entertaining enough to keep you reading. It’s a wonder a lot of these albums ever got completed, considering they were often helmed by impoverished, infighting, drug-addled fuckups. Sometimes the articles afford fascinating insight into band politics, such as when ex-members of bands are allowed to say their piece (Cannibal Corpse's Bob Rusay or Brant Bjork of Kyuss, for example).

The only chapter that lacks any intrigue is the one on Meshuggah’s Destroy Erase Improve. Influential the album might be, but the Swedes have little to say for themselves, repeatedly shooting down Kevin Stewart-Panko’s questions and offering scant insight themselves. I would have jettisoned it in favour of another tech-death landmark, Athiest’s Unquestionable Presence (published in the October 2005 issue), which has an infinitely more compelling story behind it.

Heavy metal is turning 40 right about now, and what I'd classify as "extreme" metal is turning 25. There's definitely a lot of history to explore. Now that that history is starting to recycle itself, Precious Metal provides a chance to delve into the music before it went retro, when bands were stumbling into something truly special, even if they were ignored or derided at the time. Time offers perspective, and this book takes full advantage of that.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

YOB—The Great Cessation (Profound Lore)

Mike Scheidt and his latest YOB mob (old drummer Travis Foster and new bassist Aaron Rieseberg) have come roaring back to life after Scheidt’s disastrous turn with Middian, the project he started after folding YOB. Middian released the fine Age Eternal album, then were quickly sued out of existence by a band who owned nearly the same name. To add insult to injury, Middian were designated as “untouchables” and dropped by an unhelpful Metal Blade Records. Considering what Scheidt has been through, it’s tempting to hear the new YOB album as a prolonged howl of anguish. However, The Great Cessation is not mere catharsis; it’s a defiant and triumphant continuation of where YOB left off with 2005’s The Unreal Never Lived. America’s finest doom act is back, and stomping balls. As guitarist and vocalist, Scheidt holds the keys to YOB’s sound. He’s always been a tasteful guitarist, even when pounding out waves of sludge cranked up beyond 11. Engineer/co-producer Sanford Parker knows how to record this sort of thing. The guitar tracks are massive, and Scheidt has more than just a few powerchords in his guitar-senal. He hits all six strings, sending you whirling helplessly in a tornado of frequencies. “Burning the Altar” is a thundering opener, full of YOB trademarks such as Scheidt’s alternating high-pitched/monster growl vocals, sluggish pacing, and an epic length that encompasses a Middle-Eastern-flavoured interlude and a squalling guitar solo to take us out. “The Lie That is Sin” is melodic and surging, demonstrating the power of control and restraint. The only track that resists enjoyment is “Silence of Heaven,” a cauldron of torment that divides the album in half. The layers of hellacious vocals overpower the music’s grinding doom, throwing the balance off. I couldn’t make a breakthrough on this one; it doth not rock. The 20-minute title track, the best song on here, is perfectly paced and perfectly placedas an album closer. It opens in an archetypal post-rock style, a desolate crawl with murmured vocals. As a song, it flows perfectly, never dragging, expertly assembling a few crushing riffs, while avoiding extraneous repetition or digressions. On this track you can hear YOB’s music getting leaner and more holistic; the joins becoming more difficult to discern. Scheidt’s portentous strumming conveys immense melancholy, as do the lyrics: “Will we ever see a time without cause, when we see what we know never was?” This kind of wistfulness in music and lyrics elevates YOB above other Sabbath-worshipping doom acts. YOB could cover “Cortez the Killer” as credibly as “Hand of Doom.”

Monday, September 21, 2009

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Six Organs of Admittance—RTZ (Drag City)

Ben Chasny’s folk/psych project rounds up some rare split and limited edition releases on this sprawling double CD/triple LP release. Recorded at home on a Tascam 424 four-track—the title refers to the unit's RTZ (“Return to Zero”) button—the five epic “segments” showcase the more mystical, murky side of SOoA. None of them are in a hurry to get anywhere; each explores a becalmed and forlorn sound-space while wandering into some weird nooks and crannies along the way. With just four tracks and a few guitars Chasny creates some impressive music. It's often sparse, as his recording methods have dictated, but it's never in any danger of becoming uninvolving. “Warm Earth, Which I’ve Been Told” embraces stasis, with a quavering organ drone supporting a variety of clanging string sounds, the whole thing bookended by a mournful guitar figure and chanting. Bleakest number here? On “You Can Always See The Sun,” Chasny’s intricate playing is offset by a looming drone of distortion. “Punish the Chasm With Wings” offers the most contrast. A low, prolonged hum threatens a cacophony, which arrives with an electric guitar spazzout overtop some frantic acoustic guitar and primitive drumming, which is in turn replaced by the same low hum. It's like scanning a radio dial exclusively occupied by weird underground radio stations, for whom Ummagumma and First Utterance are the foundation for all music. Despite originating between 1998 and 2003, the pieces on RTZ are remarkably cohesive, fitting together to form an audio mural of beautiful desolation, to be listened to with lights off and contemplated like an ultra-malevolent Wyndham Hill album. I don't know if Chasny chose these pieces wisely or simply had them as his only non-album tracks, but they work well together. Wallowing in ramshackle beauty and noble loneliness, RTZ is a unique and important entry in the Six Organs of Admittance saga.