Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hellhammer—Demon Entrails (Century Media/PDR)

Now that I’ve reviewed Tom Warrior’s latest project, let’s go way, way back to his first recordings with Hellhammer. He documented this era in Only Death is Real, THE metal book of 2010 so far. The only thing that remarkable compendium didn’t include was a soundtrack. Fortunately, Century Media released just such a thing in 2008.

At the time of their first release, most bands are like teenagers—reckless, ill-groomed, and pumped up with new possibilities. When Swiss legends Hellhammer put out the Apocalyptic Raids EP, they were toddlers, artistically—apt to fall down, smear peanut butter on the cat, and forget to use their “inside voice.” After the EP’s release, critics gave them a unanimous “time out,” during which Tom Warrior and Martin Eric Ain’s balls dropped and they emerged kicking and screaming with the mighty Celtic Frost.

But even before Apocalyptic Raids, Hellhammer took their first baby steps via the demos compiled on this two-disc archival release, Demon Entrails. If you’ve heard Apocalyptic Raids, you can imagine what the Hellhammer demos must sound like. The sonics are indeed grim. Yet, some promise seeps out of the murk. Hellhammer knew what they were going for, even if their ambitions far outstripped their abilities.

Disc one contains the entire Satanic Rites demo from December 1983. This was the band’s first session in a real studio, an occasion tainted by the last-minute loss of their bassist. Described in one of the funnier episodes in Only Death is Real, the band learned that Stephen “Evoked Damnator” Priestly had gone shopping with his mother the morning of the session. “In our view, he had dishonored the name Evoked Damnator,” rues Warrior, who had to record the bass parts himself. They’re pretty much inaudible. With the production being a write-off, the band still manages to upchuck some interesting material. The ambitious “Buried and Forgotten” is an early version of “Necromantical Screams” from Celtic Frost’s To Mega Therion, one of their most grandiose tracks. “Triumph of Death” is another gnarled masterpiece—probably Hellhammer’s greatest achievement. Here it’s a couple minutes shorter than the agonizing Apocalyptic Raids version, and better for it. The riffs carry more headbanging momentum. The rest of the tracks reflect Hellhammer’s speedy punk-metal sound. “Maniac” even verges on rock ‘n’ roll, and stands out along with “Euronymos” and “Messiah” as the best of the blackened polkas.

Disc two steps back six months in time for the Triumph of Death and Death Fiend demos, both recorded in one session at the band’s rehearsal space (the latter title was never released). Intoxicated with the idea of recording, they laid down their entire 17-song repertoire. The sound is truly noxious, but better balanced than the Satanic Rites demo, with Steve Warrior’s Cronos-inspired bass sound holding it own against Warrior’s guitar slop. The band bulldozes through everything with little attention to quality control. Were it not for their zeal to release everything, they could have tossed out at least half this material from the outset. Some of the important elements are in place, like Warrior’s biting guitar sound. The rest of the good stuff seems to happen by accident: “Death Fiend”’s punkish energy and the (hobbled) stoner rock groove of “Bloody Pussies,” for example. The band’s first thrash at “Triumph of Death” is even shorter and faster than the version on disc one. Blinded by metal, leather and hell, Hellhammer were still scrambling for control over their material in terms of performance and songwriting.

While none of this was acceptable to the metal establishment at the time, hearing it now that "raw, primitive BM" is an accepted subgenre underlines Hellhammer's unwitting influence. It’s interesting to hear their sound develop from elements of the NWOBHM (especially Venom) along with a more cruel approach using Sabbathian power chords in semitone clusters. Demon Entrails demonstrates that Hellhammer were a departure point where metal took a stern, uncompromising direction that led to the second wave of black metal. Demon Entrails isn’t exactly a listening pleasure, but it is an undeniable piece of metal history.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Triptykon—Eparistera Daimones (Century Media/PDR)

Born from pain and steeped in death, Triptykon has roared to life. Triptykon is Tom G “Warrior” Fischer’s new project following the ugly demise of Celtic Frost only one album into their comeback. Monotheist, the comeback album in question, brought them much acclaim (it was Terrorizer's album of the year), but to me it offered little of the raw, elemental riff satisfaction of classic Celtic Frost; only hyper-compressed sound smears and cringe-worthy attempts to out-extreme Celtic Frost’s blackened disciples. I pulled Monotheist out for another listen just before Triptykon’s release date, and it was still a miserable experience.

I checked out some Triptykon material online and read the advance reviews. Buying the thing still felt like a small act of faith...one that was rewarded. With Martin Ain and the drummer purged from the lineup, Triptykon have written actual heavy metal songs rather than trying to scare the bejeezus out of us. Eparistera Daimones is more down to earth, despite that fancy title. Like Monotheist, it’s ridiculously down-tuned, but there are riffs, clearly delineated sections, and quick shifts in tempo—the building blocks of memorable songs. The ill-logic of classic Celtic Frost prevails.

The album’s first 11 minutes whizzes by as “Goetia” unleashes a barrage of colossal riffage. Again on the similarly hefty “Abyss Within My Soul” and “In Shrouds Decayed,” the riffs do most of the work. The song structures will be familiar to anyone raised on heavy metal in the ’80s. Remember when metal songs had “thrash parts” and you’d anticipate the final sprint on songs like “No Remorse” or “At Dawn They Sleep”? That’s what “Descendant” does, and it sure made me smile. For out-and-out thrash, there’s “A Thousand Lies” which should have a Speed Metal logo slapped on it.

The inevitable genre experiments and diversions come late in the album. “Myopic Empire” bogs things down a bit; a B-side quality song with a piano interlude inserted in the middle. Neither element is very compelling. “My Pain” continues the exploration in a Massive Attack or Anathema mode, yet it’s not bad, barring some clunky spoken word passages. The album bows out with “The Prolonging”—a 20 minute mass of deformity pulled from the same agony bag as much of Monotheist; occasionally headbangable, but mainly a thing of ghastly wonder.

The angst-ridden vocals are up front and discernable, to their detriment. I’ll always prefer the cryptic, garbled approach that rendered songs like “Jewel Throne” so mysterious. (My reissue of To Mega Therion has lyrics, but I’ve avoided looking at them.) Warrior has transcribed the frustration of the last few years too literally at times (“You betrayed me to my face,” “As you perish, I shall live,” and so on), resulting in vindictive tirades a far cry from the mystique of old Frost. But stripping away that mystique seems to be Warrior’s mindset these days—see also his often painfully revealing book on the Hellhammer years, Only Death is Real. Anger and revenge inspired Warrior to form Triptykon and release a far better album than Monotheist. I can't argue with the results.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Red Sparowes with Caspian, April 30 at The Biltmore

I hadn’t done much research beforehand, so when I visited the merch table and saw Caspian t-shirts bearing a mutated CBC logo, I assumed they were a Canadian band. Not so, as they announced their Massachusetts origins early in their set. They really threw themselves into it, and sounded great in the process — a five-piece instrumental blend of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine and whichever heavy post-rock act that’s caught your gaze. The only issue I had with their music was that it was almost constantly advancing towards or retreating from an apex point. Sure, dynamics are important, but I also like music that stays put and tells me what it’s about. Instead I’m standing there thinking, “Is this one done? No, it’s starting up again.” Overall, an excellent band, though, and their set’s all-percussion finale was a nice touch (and a nod to Neurosis?).

Kudos to Red Sparowes for not heading back south from Seattle whenever they come up the West Coast. This was the third time I’ve seen them. They always create a great atmosphere — the music and visuals make for a grand spectacle. The music’s standalone quality is impeccable as well. Three-guitar bands usually carry a passenger (hello, Iron Maiden), but Red Sparowes are actually able to orchestrate all 18 strings and create a huge sound that doesn’t rely on simply piling on and overwhelming with volume. Because of the Biltmore’s low ceiling, their projection was reduced to a horizontal sliver of light above the stage (how we miss you, Richard’s on Richards). Still, with the lower two-thirds of the visuals spilling over the band members’ and audience’s heads, a definite vibe was achieved. The band’s undergone some lineup changes since I last saw them, and their music has only gotten better. The pedal steel is a genius move, with those sliding guitar notes taking their sound into Pink Floyd Obscured by Clouds territory. Brilliant stuff, and my only regret was that I didn’t choose a vantage point with fewer distractions. Instead I stood behind a fanboy with an iPhone. Man, that’s a bad combination. I try to live in the moment, but it’s hard when someone’s scrolling through their music collection, looking up song titles to show to a friend. Neglecting one’s research before the gig is one thing, but doing research during the gig...well, that’s just bad form.