Sunday, November 5, 2017

Heaviest Metallist 8 - Triptykon

(in which a lapsed metalhead seeks the heaviest metal song ever - recommendations are welcome)

Black Snow/Altar of Deceit
Melana Chasmata

Do this. Grab your list of bands that have been around for three decades and are still making new music you might listen to more than one time. If it's anything like mine, it's probably pretty sparse. Of course, Triptykon is technically not the same band as Celtic Frost, but given that the driving force in each incarnation is Tom Fischer I'd say that's close enough for government work. In 2014, thirty years after Celtic Frost made the scene with Morbid Tales, Triptykon released their second album, Melana Chasmata. If you allow that there's such a creature as extreme progressive metal or perhaps progressive extreme metal (or whatever...) this is arguably a good example of the form.

Melana Chasmata is heavy, but it's not breakneck, unmitigated heaviness all the way through. There are bits that border on subtle and there's even a track I'd nominate as the best Sisters of Mercy song the Sisters of Mercy never wrote. But none of that has a place here, where we are striving to locate the heaviest metal song of all time. Fortunately, there's some seriously heavy stuff on this album. Since two songs were especially noteworthy, it's two for the price of one this time around.

Black Snow
Epic is a word that gets tossed around a lot these days, often with no good reason, except that it's a popular buzzword. But it's a word that could be applied quite accurately to Black Snow, a tune that clocks in at over 12 minutes and doesn't waste one second of its running time. Celtic Frost did some pretty decent fast songs but for my money some of their most memorable ones proceeded at a leisurely pace. Melana Chasmata has one good thrasher (Breathing) and Black Snow kicks it into high gear for a short stretch but for the most part it lumbers along at a trudging pace and an atmosphere that drips with menace and foreboding. Combine this with the excellent production quality - nothing lo-fi or murky here - and the result is twelve minutes of music that hits like a ton of bricks.

Altar of Deceit
Black Snow would easily have been the best song on the album if it weren’t for Altar of Deceit. Things get rolling here with a plinking guitar that's soon joined by drums and before long a massive riff comes barreling down the tracks. It gives way another even more massive riff, with a chugging trudging rhythm of the sort that Celtic Frost might not have invented but that they certainly made good use of. And on it goes until the break, which gives way to noodly, trippy guitar stuff that works quite well in the context of things. Then come the final section of the song, which takes a seriously heavy turn and which features riffs that sound like they're shattering slabs of concrete. Then it's all over. If you're like me you start it again.

Celtic Frost Documentary

Celtic Frost - A Dying God, a Swiss documentary with English subtitles.

Underrated Rock Guitarists - Bruce Anderson

One of the more obscure underrated rock guitarists, Anderson played with MX-80 Sound, once described as "either the most Heavy Metal Art Band or the most Arty Heavy Metal Band". Out of the Tunnel, their 1980 release on Ralph Records, is enough to justify Anderson's inclusion in the annals of the underrated.

The group's second full length album, it delights throughout with Anderson wielding a guitar that sounds like a fistful of barbed wire being raked over the strings. Highlights include the bouncy, loopy Gary and Priscilla, which is catchy and annoying at the same time and which finds Anderson almost at his finest. He peaks on Someday You'll Be King, a mix of avant-weird-power-punk-bubble-gum-whatever, complete with an honest to goodness hook and angular punkish guitar freakouts that still stick in my head decades later.

Scritchy, man.

Underrated Rock Guitarists - Snakefinger

An obscure "rock" guitarist, Snakefinger, aka Philip Charles Lithman, was probably best known for his work with The Residents, who have provided the world with a seemingly inexhaustible fount of sonic weirdness for about four decades. He was so closely associated with the eyeball head guys until his untimely death in 1987 that the two entities almost seemed to blend together. While his Residential work, not surprisingly, was decidedly quirky, Snakefinger was arguably less offbeat than his pals and his 1984 live album was devoted solely to blues covers. For an introduction to his work, try the Residents albums on which he appeared or the quartet of solo albums he released on Ralph Records from 1979 to 1983.

The Other Half on The Mod Squad

The Other Half, a real-life Sixties band who released one album.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Heaviest Metallist 7 - Sleep II

(in which a lapsed metalhead seeks the heaviest metal song ever - recommendations are welcome)


The story of Dopesmoker is one that's been told much better than I can. So I'll recommend that you look elsewhere and commence to give the super-condensed version. It goes like this - mainstreamish record label freaks out when their new act delivers a 64-minute song/LP devoted to the joys of recreational drug use.

As someone who's never really developed a taste for that sort of thing, I'll note that Dopesmoker stands on its own merits very well, thank you. You don’t need to be a dopesmoker to appreciate the music. That is, as long as you're a fan of heavy, heavy music that takes a riff or two and hammers away at them for more than an hour.

I'm sure these types of antics could go very much astray in the wrong hands. But I'd go so far as to say that Dopesmoker is just plain brilliant. Rather than being monotonous, all of that repetition with very little variation becomes hypnotic at some point.

My only quibble is that when the band does change things up, with noodly-doodly guitar breaks and whatnot, it actually detracts from the hypnotic effect. Release a remixed version without all of this nonsense and I'll be at the head of the line.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Heaviest Metallist 6 - Slomatics II

(in which a lapsed metalhead seeks the heaviest metal song ever - recommendations are welcome)

Spit 7"

All hail the riff. Because it's all about the almighty riff. Strip heavy metal down to its essence and that's really all there is. The more I listen to Slomatics the more I realize that they have learned this essential truth about the nature of the universe, existence, reality and whatnot. They specialize in creating riffs Tony Iommi might have come up with if he was 400-feet tall - gargantuan, bottom-heavy riffs that have the power to destroy mountains and turn the citizenry into shrieking, fleeing masses. And I mean that in a good way.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Heaviest Metallist 5 - Sleep

(in which a lapsed metalhead seeks the heaviest metal song ever - recommendations are welcome)

Holy Mountain
Sleep's Holy Mountain (1992)

The first (only?) Black Sabbath album I ever bought was Technical Ecstasy. I was young and the price was right and it seemed okay in an era when you didn't have access to the whole of recorded music.

The only song I can remember now is a lame one called Rock and Roll Doctor, which sounded nothing like the Black Sabbath of their heyday. But if you want heyday-era Black Sabbath, you have maybe four albums to choose from (depending on who's counting) and even those contained some duds.

The point I'm working my way around to is that there wasn't enough 'good' Black Sabbath to go around and so I'm quite keen to discover, after being away from metal for a while, that there are now twelve zillion bands who have taken their music as a jumping off point. Sleep was one of the earlier examples of these and Holy Mountain and the album it appeared on are rightly renowned. If you gotta steal, steal from the best.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Heaviest Metallist 4 – Slomatics

(in which a lapsed metalhead seeks the heaviest metal song ever - recommendations are welcome)

Tunnel Dragger
Estron (2014)

They seem to gravitate toward the lowest of the low registers, these Slomatics guys. Who hail from Ireland and who have turned out five full-length albums so far - but you knew that.

Tunnel Dragger appears on the fourth of these, Estron (2014), and as your grandpa might put it, it's a real humdinger. How much more bottom heavy can you get? It's not for me to say but you can borrow my seismograph, if you need to do some research.

Anyway, the song rumbles and thuds and is dragged through tunnels for a while and suddenly there's a pleasant break that's all melodic and puppies romping in fields of daisies. Which only serves to emphasize the heaviness of the whole contraption once the thudding and rumbling start up again. Color me delighted.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Heaviest Metallist 3 - Middian

(in which a lapsed metalhead seeks the heaviest metal song ever - recommendations are welcome)

Sink to the Center
Age Eternal (2007)

An intense wave of sonic abuse designed to vaporize the listener? A heavy plodding tempo and one chord repeated over and over again (with a second one tossed in for good measure now and then)? Vocals that sound like a legion of fingernails dragged over a blackboard? That's gotta be early Swans, right?

Not so fast, Gira-breath. It's actually Middian, who released Age Eternal in 2007 and soon were driven out of business by a similarly named combo with a litigious streak. Sink to the Center is very old Swans-like indeed, if you ask me, but with more of metallic edge and screechier vocals.

It's heavy beyond heavy and of course it's way too soon to award it the Heaviest crown. But it will be a strong contender.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Heaviest Metallist 2 - Sourvein

(in which a lapsed metalhead seeks the heaviest metal song ever - recommendations are welcome)

Holy Transfusion
Black Fangs (2011)

What's the optimum BPM required to achieve the optimum level of heavy? Ain't got a clue, but I tend to favor something between downright plodding and pleasingly mid-tempo. A super-low bass bottom that sounds like its rising up from the bowels of the earth helps the proceedings along and of course a simple yet effective riff.

All of which are present in Holy Transfusion, from Sourvein's Black Fangs (2011) album, their third full-length release over the course of about twenty years. I hadn't heard of them before but that's no surprise since I've been out of the metal loop for a while.

(Jump to 17:33 on the video)

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Heaviest Metallist 1 - Black Pyramid

(in which a lapsed metalhead seeks the heaviest metal song ever - recommendations are welcome)

Black Pyramid
Visions of Gehenna
Black Pyramid (2009)

A half century into heavy metal and you might assume it's all been done - and it probably has. But even at this late date you might run across a band who breathes life back into the moldering old corpse of the great beast.

for example, there's Visions of Gehenna, from Black Pyramid's self-titled first album (2009), a song I've had in heavy rotation lately. It opens with a catchy little bass bit and then gives way to a martial beat and a first-class riff delivered with an intensity that suggests a 30-piece ensemble rather than just a trio. Throw in some sword and sorcery inspired lyrics that actually aren't goofy and it makes for a very fine number. Wunnerful, wunnerful...

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Gun Club Revisited 3 - Promise Me

Promise Me, the sole "slow" song on side one of the LP version of Fire of Love was bracketed by a pair of rave-ups, both before and after. Back in the day I didn't have much use for it or any of the other laid back Gun Club songs. But they began to grow on me over the years. It's a fairly straightforward effort, for the most part, with a heavy guitar part that plods along throughout and ominous lyrics adding to the dark undertone. The icing on the cake is a violin part by Tito Larriva (who co-produced the album, along with Chris D. - once of the Flesheaters) that's more drone than tune and which recalls John Cale's viola playing with the Velvet Underground.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Gun Club Revisited 2 - Preachin' the Blues

The Gun Club released their version of Robert Johnson's Preachin' Blues (Up Jumped the Devil) as Preaching the Blues, in 1981. The late bluesman's star had not ascended to its current lofty heights at the time but English bluesmen and others had been doing their part to keep his music in front of the public since the Sixties.

This greatly altered version of the song kicks off with all of the rip-roaring, out of control goodness of a train about to run off the tracks and keeps up the pace pretty much throughout, with a few lulls tossed in for dramatic effect. It works and really well. Wailing slide guitar opens the proceedings, the rhythm section kicks in at a frenetic pace, and Pierce, hardly the most restrained of all vocalists, turns in an especially forceful performance, complete with wailing and howling. Which puts it in my Gun Club top 10, for sure.

Gun Club Revisited 1 - Sex Beat

The Gun Club released their first album, Fire of Love, in late summer of 1981. Over the course of a decade and a half or so until the death of core member, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, their output included seven studio albums and an EP, assorted and sundry bootlegs and a smattering of this, that and the other. While there's plenty of good stuff to be found in all of this, some (myself included) would make the argument that their debut album was also their finest moment.

Lots of ink has been spilled trying to describe what The Gun Club actually did. My take would be punked-up blues with a decidedly dark bent, though the overt blues influences seemed to dwindle a bit as the years passed.

Sex Beat - the opener on the album and The Gun Club song your grandma and other non-fans are probably most likely to have heard - owes a great deal to punk and not so much to blues. The stop and go bits provide a bit of drama and the lyrics, well...they're lyrics. Overall I find that the appeal of this one has waned some as the years have passed, while songs on the album that I used to skip over have become much more appealing.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Jethro Tull - Songs From the Wood

Jethro Tull
Songs From the Wood

Songs From the Wood, in particular, is an album that, for all the band members, was a reaffirmation of our Britishness. (Ian Anderson)

Praise be to the distant sister sun. (Ring Out, Solstice Bells)

Quick - name two popular hard rock bands that incorporated the flute as an integral part of their sound. If you're like me you probably got as far as Jethro Tull and gave up. Maybe I'm missing an obvious one.

Jethro Tull became something of a punchline for a while after the 1989 Grammys, when their Crest of a Knave album beat Metallica's ...And Justice for All in the Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance category. It was a ridiculous development that surprised the members of both bands and anyone else who had a notion of what heavy metal actually was. None of which should overshadow the achievements of a band that gave the world such rock milestones as Thick as a Brick, A Passion Play, and of course, Aqualung.

By 1989, I had already moved on and my Jethro Tull years were about a decade past. I remembered Songs From the Wood as being a pretty good album and one that I listened to quite often back when. But until recently I hadn't sat down and listened to it after a gap of nearly forty years. Like so many things that seemed nifty keen back when I figured it wouldn't hold up. So it came as something of a surprise as the album unspooled (on YouTube on a Kindle Fire - my well-worn vinyl copy parked on the shelf about three feet away) and I realized that it was much, much, much better than I had remembered it. So good that it might even merit a fourth "much". A Rolling Stone reviewer once remarked that this "may well have been the group's best record ever". I haven't heard all of the band's albums but I can't imagine one that might top this one.

Jethro Tull was no stranger to concept albums, having already turned out several by this time. Songs From the Wood wasn't quite a concept album, in the sense that it told one coherent story from start to finish. But the songs therein were all focused on a specific theme, which you could boil down to English country life, with the emphasis on folklore and mythology. It was the England of solstice celebrations, standing stones, May Day parades, wicker men, druids, fertility rites, and whatnot.

There's not really a dud in the bunch but side one (for those of us who grew up listening to those vinyl copies) is probably the better of the two, by a hair. Songs From the Wood kicks things off in fine fashion with a sometimes heavyish and other times folkish approach and topnotch harmonies. Jack-in-the-Green is mostly guitar and flute, with a slightly darker and more acoustic feel and is a keen little snippet of song, while Cup of Wonder hearkens back more closely to the title track. Hunting Girl is the odd song out here being a heavier tune about a wealthy woman who veers from a hunting party to consort with the hired help. Ring Out, Solstice Bells closes out side one with a very catchy paean to the solstice.

Side two kicks off with Velvet Green, which alternates between a lyrical and somewhat darker tone, with subject matter that hearkens back to Hunting Girl. Casual Jethro Tull fans are probably most likely to have heard The Whistler out of all the songs here. Of the few singles that were released from the album it’s the one that seems to have been the most successful. Up next is the longest and perhaps the heaviest song on the album - Pibroch (Cap In Hand). Pibroch being a type of traditional Scottish music and consequently Martin Barre's guitar is made to resemble bagpipes (well, sort of). The proceedings conclude with the quietest song of the bunch, with the aptly reflective title of Fire at Midnight.

Top Tracks
It's tough to narrow it down to a few favorites but if I had to, I'd go with (a near photo-finish) Ring Out, Solstice Bells, very closely followed by Cup of Wonder.

Monday, January 18, 2016

10 "Other" Ramones Songs

When I bought my first Ramones album - Ramones Leave Home - way back in 1977 no one wanted to know about it, including the heavy metal kids I associated with. Never mind that it's arguably one of their heaviest albums. Didn't matter. It was a relatively small circle of Ramones fans back then - or so it seemed. But as time passed the world caught up and came to recognize their innate greatness. For the Ramones it was too little, too late, and of course all of the original members are gone now.

If one were to program a playlist of songs from this other Fab Four (Spin is said to have ranked them 2nd, after the Beatles, on a list of best bands) it would probably consist of many of the usual suspects. Let us review. There's Blitzkrieg Bop, Rockaway Beach, Sheena Is a Punk Rocker, I Wanna Be Sedated, Teenage Lobotomy, Rock 'n' Roll High School and Pet Semetary. These are among the band's best known songs. For good reason, for the most part, though I could do without the last one.

Of course, there are many more Ramones songs that are worth a listen. I've listed some below. Or you could just go with the first three albums, in their entirety. I'd add End of the Century to that list but that may be the minority opinion.

Beat on the Brat
Keep it simple, stupid. About as simple as it gets and yet strangely alluring.

I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement
Horror movies meet punk rock and not for the last time.

Leave Home (1977)
Glad to See You Go
The first Ramones song I ever heard. Love at first listen.

One of the heaviest efforts in the Ramones songbook.

Rocket to Russia (1977)
I Wanna Be Well
You could compile an album (or more) of Ramones songs about mental health. One of the best.

Surfin' Bird
Many have tried (and failed) to capture something of majesty of this song, first recorded by The Trashmen, in 1963. The Ramones were one of the few to pull it off.

End of the Century (1980)
Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?
For their fifth studio album the group teamed up with the legendary and legendarily eccentric producer, Phil Spector. By all accounts it didn't go well. The reception to the album was mixed, but I mostly give it a thumbs up. The song that kicks it off is very Spectoresque and is about as catchy as they come. I rank in my top two of Ramones songs, along with Blitzkrieg Bop.

Danny Says
Because when you think of the Ramones the first thing that springs to mind is a ballad. A catchy one about the rigors of touring, from a foursome who knew that very well.

Pleasant Dreams (1981)
The KKK Took My Baby Away
Not much to recommend from this lackluster album but I'd rank this song in my top three.

Too Tough to Die (1984)
Wart Hog
The excitement of confronting a new Ramones album had dwindled by the time of their eighth studio album. But it was a decent effort and featured this song, a silly take on thrashing hardcore punk.