Friday, December 31, 2010

A - nd what's left

Since I'm almost done with the letter A (only Atrox left and I'm having some trouble writing that review because I don't want to repeat what was said in The 3rd And The Mortal review -- but I'll get it eventually) I figured I'd post mini-explanations of why I didn't include other exemplary records in my collection from the first letter of the alphabet in the final top100.

Autopsy - Mental Funeral

Archetypal death metal band from California, wildly influential in both their home country and abroad (especially in Sweden) with their superficially sloppy and rude but fundamentally composed and impactful attack. "Mental Funeral" is their second record, from 1991 and the one I find most effective as a long-runner, though I often listen to their best-of just as happily. Autopsy didn't write many bad songs and the worst they offer is some disposable punky side-waste they're excused for as far as I'm concerned. At their best they are very effective in channeling this morbid fascination with the dead and dying that oftentimes comes hand in hand with erections in puberty. They are most effective because they colour their death paeans with a sloppy, almost sexual sense of movement. Furthermore, of all the sound design approaches in metal music, Autopsy's has the most body to it, pungent and horrid as it may be.

However I do not include their otherwise excellent music in my top 100 because their many variations of

Stiff and cold
In your box
To decay

strike me as a rudimentary instrument with which to peel back the layers of meaning inherent in the sentience/mortality conundrum. More a shovel, less a scalpel. Their slower (for Autopsy only seem to have two modes, very slow and very fast) compositional aspect was parallelized by the British doom/death
bands like Paradise Lost whose odes to not only existentialist despair but also ancient beauty, strike closer to the core of my interests.

Artillery - By Inheritance

Thrash metal band from Denmark. Wild guitar gesticulations but very melodic, often close to the Megadeth approach to technothrash. I used to listen to a couple of their records a lot, and "By Inheritance" is the one I'd keep if I had more space in my heart. However over the years and with a stronger appreciation for the history of Heavy Metal music, I've realized that what Artillery achieve in 1990 with 'By Inheritance' has been preempted by a width of dutiful thrash acts, most of them American as is the usual. Though it's hard to find fault with the inventive and convincing riffery explored throughout this LP, after all it is hard to get excited about it too after you've found its well of inspiration to be more vital and innocent. Even their lyrics are a pastiche of thrash 'issues of the day', well after the expiration date of their poignancy. Small things like that pile up and so, sadly leave Artillery only barely under the limit of first-rate Heavy Metal.

Arcturus - La Masquerade Infernale

On the other hand this is not second-rate at all. Norwegian theatric & atmospheric metal with roots in the - then - vital black metal scene. This record has been a companion over many years but I no longer listen to it with any regularity. It seems to be one of these unfortunate cases where the aesthetic space that could be said to have been first colonized by Arcturus around that time, was later explored more successfully by bands of lesser ambition but more honed vision. The influence of Arcturus is expansive not in that there are Arcturus clones (and if there were I wouldn't prefer them to the real thing) but in that Arcturus and some co-aligned bands of their time made it okay for their scene of extreme metal to attempt left-field experiments. As is the thing with experiments, they're hit-and-miss. Much of the wandering on "La Masquerade Infernale" depends on novelty to carry it, but novelty passes and what is left is songs with less inherent meaning that expected, sometimes they feel under-composed or (less flatteringly for the writer of this critique) perhaps all that is really missing is a plethora of solid hooks and ear-candy.

This record enjoys a sterling reputation, though I suspect it is not often put to the test for it. It's something like an elitist achievement that I think certain Arcturus members would find ironically enjoyable, to be so widely respected yet so rarely enjoyed.

Angra - Holy Land

Brazilian europower, highly prized as saviors of that certain brand in what was in the mid '90s a very difficult era for the more traditional types of metal music. Led by a very charismatic vocalist & guitarist duo. This, their second release was part of the soundtrack of my youth and initiation to the mysteries of steel, along with other Teutonic power metal bands like Running Wild, Helloween and Blind Guardian.

The love didn't stick for Holy Land however because I started to feel the tensions between the more faux-classical/progressive/wimpy aspects of the band (spearheaded by their singer, Andre Matos) and their down-and-dirty speed metal ripping the cohesion of their music apart. It became uncomfortable to listen to something standing with one leg in metal, especially at such a formative age where being 'true' was very important. By the time 'Fireworks', their next record came out in 1998, it was abundantly clear Angra were saviors of nothing.

My Heavy Metal interests by that time were beginning to widen, I had accepted strains of extremity that I wouldn't be caught dead listening to only a year earlier, Angra, even at this, their best, seemed passé. This is unfair because, on revisitation, the material is mostly solid, however such weight of memories and expectations is almost impossible to shake off. And if I were to attempt to remedy such biases, it'd be for something with a more idiosyncratic taste than what remains, at the end of the day, another europower band.

Angel Witch - s/t

Seminal New Wave of British Heavy Metal record, sadly not the whole of it keeps up with two of its more well-known songs. Charmingly earnest like a lot of NWOBHM and very catchy, however uneven. The second best thing Angel Witch had going for them was the imagery that their name conjures. Probably my favorite metal-inversion name after 'Dream Death'. The strength of naming in Heavy Metal cannot be underestimated. I cannot listen to a band named 'Pigfuk' or perhaps worse, 'Lesbian', no matter how good their music might be, as the name conjures nothing grand in my mind. Sadly most of the great names seem to have been taken, which is to be expected with forty years of Heavy Metal history behind us.

I might be selling Angel Witch a bit short here, it does say something that I can play the title-track in my mind right now from beginning to end and enjoy myself for it, doesn't it? Sometimes when caught in public transportation without an mp3 player, I do this, meaning I play back Heavy Metal favorites in my brain, I can't be the only one? Well, "Angel Witch" is in the NWOBHM best-of for sure, even if the rest of the record doesn't achieve such high atmospheres. If you ever meet a metalhead who can't sing at least the chorus to that song, on the spot, they're possibly deluding themselves as to their subcultural identity.

Aftermath - Eyes of Tomorrow

Even a band like Coroner can have something of a clone, it seems. Well, that's selling Chicago's Aftermath short, actually, as they do some pretty inventive things with the "Mental Vortex" formula here, although much too late (1994) for it to be historically significant. Though I enjoy a couple of songs off of this often, listening to a whole record in one sitting proves tiring. The material is too homogeneous, though thrash metal's done worse in this respect. There are some pretty interesting lyrics here too "he has visions, he has premonitions / he can see, he knows / eyes of tomorrow / predictions have been made / throughout the course of history / the future can be seen" A heavy metal song about predestination, what do you know? The biggest reason I do not include this in my top 100 is that I have not yet had the fortitude to sit the whole record through, and I've had it for years and years. Though this certainly says something, I'm open to amending my position in the future, who knows what tomorrow'll show -- wait

Adramlech - Irae Melanox

Italian power/progressive metal which often is referenced as being similar to early Fates Warning. Low-rent guitar production cuts initial excitement short, though one gets used to many things when they're search for gems in the underground. It even becomes something of a curious merit of the record to be able to hear the bass and drums so clearly to the expense of the tinny guitars. Furthermore the trebly tone suits the tendency of the guitarists for dual leads and other harmonizations, because, though their two chosen tones are terrible, they are substantially different and complement each other well.

This record opens strong with 'Fearful Visions' and 'Zephyrus', both excellent tracks in which, even through his clumsy Italian-English, their talented singer manages to tap into potent lyrical symbols. The rest of the record is almost as good. I'm not including this in my top 100 due to lack of familiarization, as I've only been exposed to them for a couple of years.

Acid Bath - When the Kite String Pops

From the record cover down to the last note, Louisiana's Acid Bath are interested in juxtaposing the ugly with the uglier side of life. Their very talented frontman, Dax Riggs (who went on to a diverse career after this) is preoccupied with stories of drug abuse, social alienation and resultant psychic and physical violence. Acid Bath are excellent at this, at pushing real-life horror in the forefront while the listener is at the edge of the high that only well-written and performed metal music can achieve. However a certain air of falseness permeates this recording. I'm not saying that Acid Bath were strangers to the ugly side of life when they made this record, quite the opposite, it's an issue of aspiration, not inspiration. All Heavy Metal music is a pretension in that it reaches to something beyond one's experience, it is a leap of faith. It is relevant aesthetic sense and destination that dictates the direction of this leap. Given that all Heavy Metal music essentially hopes for something without evidence, I'd rather hope for something beautiful than find it beautiful to pretend to be hopeless. Hence, though I sometimes return to this record, it is always from the vantage of the alienated observer.

Abraxas - Future World & Shattered by a Terrible Prediction

I have fond memories of their "Shattered by a Terrible Prediction" EP as it was one of the first things that a dear friend of mine played me on his turntable when early into my Heavy Metal initiation. I remember he was impressed by how the lyric to the main song referenced the image on the cover of the record. Meaning augmenting meaning. I had forgotten about Abraxas for a long time between then and when I tracked that record down again some five years ago, online. The music of it, besides its obvious sentimental value to me, felt overly familiar (in both good and bad ways) and amateurish (only in bad ways). A more sloppy take on Helloween-styled speed metal, an almost lifted chorus section, double-bass and palm muted major melody. Though an interesting curio, I would never include it in a best-of list of any kind perhaps save of "...Other Teutonic speed metal you might have missed out on" along the likes of Scanner and Not Fragile.

However the shame here is that I took my sweet time to ever get to their belated follow-up "Future World" due to the somewhat underwhelming experience with the EP. Also that there is Helloween song named that, certainly didn't help.

In reality their "Future World" has little relation to Helloween, or their past sound in general. They play an ambitious form of power/progressive metal, augmented by startling dual-guitar fluency, beautiful melodies and tirelessly dynamic composition. I play the record often now that I have began to uncover its many graces but it'll be a few years before I'm ready to say if it belongs in the pantheon.

Angus - Track of Doom

Angus are a strange band. They're something of a throwback, playing a simple and derivative type of Heavy Metal that could be said to be passé even by its 1986 year of release. The songs of this Dutch quartet are mostly similar yet the music doesn't become boring. I guess Angus are a little like my AC/DC, which makes their choice of name apt. Their singer has a clear and imposing voice that I can't get enough of, strikes a similar feel to Dio's more mythological excursions. In a certain mindset, Angus become The Best Band That Ever Where, however in other mindsets its almost impossible to listen to them without spotting their lack of forward vision. Very earnest, driving stuff, but not as spiritually elevating as it'd have to be to be in my top100.

Agent Steel - Unstoppable Force

Talking about speed metal, here's the prime candidate, really. Paranoiac futurist/alien conspiracy speed metal at that. And therein lies the problem: though I enjoy this record to the point where I think my first whiplash-related injury that I remember was during the high note of the same-titled track, I really am not enamored with the concept of alien intelligence as the thematic focus of a Heavy Metal record. At least not in that literal sense,

"From the walls of the ocean
From the waters they rise
Share their wings they will take us
Hundred light years in minutes

Split through the cosmos
The universe is falling
Earth base II the city underwater

See Atlantis is rising
Watch the skeptic is sinking
From atop of the Andes
Stands our city of gold


(the capitalization reproduced as found on, as it best conveys the excitement on that chorus)

I mean, I feel slightly robbed when I am made to bang my head like there's no tomorrow for some space aliens that are coming from the air and it's too late to stop them. So what? I'm sure John Cyriis, singer and lyricist for the band at that time (and it turns out, he has returned to the fold for however briefly, in the present) takes the possibility of aliens amongst us and conspiracy theories much more seriously. I find it difficult to do the same.

At the Gates - The Red in the Sky Is Ours

Swedish fractured black/death metal with folkish influences and a very idiosyncratic idea on parallel guitar riffing that approaches what I sometimes call 'metalhead counterpoint'. Written by what we now know were gifted teenagers, it captures very lucidly (but not succinctly, as this music is rambling) the disparate psychological pulls of the introvert, talented adolescent. Teliosis and suicide, self-mutilation and hate for the outer. Right up my alley as it were, however not strong enough to be top100 material because of a lack of variety. Given their compositional approach, it's easy to take a part from one song and put it in another, or perhaps worse, to take a part of one song and have it be of no decreased quality for its loss. These are errors, so to speak, that make sense for At The Gates's early approach to music writing. When they went to correct them they ended up with commercialized and straightforward music that doesn't appeal to me, so it seems like a damned if they do and if they don't damned kind of situation. As a composer of fractured music of many parts, I have sympathy for At The Gates, but it's nonetheless a very taxing experience to follow this record through its many twists and turns down what at the end becomes a very well-trodden labyrinth, and though the emotional returns are perhaps worthwhile, there are other bands in my top100 which hit those beats just as well or better and also achieve other goals in the span of their record.

Amorphis - Tuonela

This artifact from the '90s by the Finnish once-death metal band Amorphis has been widely celebrated as a bridge between atmospheric metal and what was once briefly called alternative metal. The songs are very catchy, succinct and the sound design of them is obviously labored upon. The melancholy that characterizes the beautiful lyrics is then coated in a laminated sheen, it's easy to be impressed by that record but more difficult to feel close to it. Such was the fate of many '90's bands trying to become something more than Heavy Metal. Amorphis gave an interview to british magazine Terrorizer once from where I remember a very telling quote. When asked about their influences and music likes, they said "certainly nothing from the dreadful '80s". As the '80s where the apex of Heavy Metal music, this says a lot. Tuonela offers '70s art (and not progressive) rock trappings in an approachable '90s sleek mainstream metal veneer. The quality of the songs here overcomes the inherent weaknesses of that combo, not not enough for this to be something I can outright profess to love eternally.

Aarni - Bathos

Confounding Finnish experimental doom music. Has a humorous quality to it which is completely outside of how other metal bands have approached humor (usually awful Monty Python impressions by Germans is what we get, or worse, faux socially poignant didactic finger-wiggling by thrash bands) in that the joke here is that nothing makes tidy sense and whatever expectations the listener is trying to build through listening to the record are upset gently but certainly two minutes later. I suspect the point of this music is a celebration of quantum uncertainty as an end in itself, akin to reading Robert Anton Smith. To effectively hold no views, to have no identity, to be swallowed in potentiality. This goal I detect (and I'm glad to accept that I might have misunderstood Aar-- haha haha hahahah) is a high one, however the music is let down by a degree of amateurism in sound design and recording. Now, I am sure the personae involved in Aarni have a good (and cruelly humorous) explanation for sound shortcomings and how that may or may not fit into their meta-concept, but for me those explainations will not fix the problems with the recording here.

All this isn't to say that Aarni are a joke band. The record doesn't make tidy sense but it certainly achieves a (messy) mood and there is a worthwhile construct to revisit here. I just feel that the Aarni entity has it in them to make this record again, better.

Ageless Wisdom - demo

Greek Manilla Road-esque Heavy Metal worship with a tender heart and the force of steel. As much as I love these two songs (and I love them fierily) they're just two songs. Get over it, Helm.

Annon Vin - A New Gate

Voivodesque progressive metal (with roots in technothrash, as it were) with overdone vocal harmonies on top. One of many German bands enamored with that type of music, they congregated around Mekong Delta like most. Their vocal harmonies are distinct and rare enough in metal music (not to mention, thrash metal) that they have a little page in HM history just to themselves. The quirky Nothingface-esque guitar playing and the active and inventive bass lines carry the songs just as well as the alien metal Beach Boys thing their singer has going for himself (as it is, unlike the Beach Boys, one person singing all the harmony parts on multitrack recording here). However problems persist. Being out of key in one voice is problem enough, harmony vocals that quiver around their intended note is sometimes too much. The material however is very promising and I might get over my small issues with this record and find a place for it in the pantheon.

Aspid - Extravastation

Raging Russian technothrash in the vein of Destruction's "Cracked Brain", only more accomplished in that particular metal idiom. I listen to this a lot and constantly find new things to love. However it's far too soon to tell if it's top100 material. Check back with me five years or more from now.

Abstract Algebra - s/t

Post-modern power/progressive project by Candlemass's Leif Edling. Much of interest to be found here, great range and variety that Edling would never reattempt. The sound design is modern and robust, the music deceptively simple for what it attempts to convey. At one time many thought the future of metal music might be found in outings such as these, however for good or worse it wasn't to be.

Not every song holds up to scrutiny and even a few that do outstay their welcome with an extra chorus or whatnot. Minor faults for a minor classic whose main reason of exclusion to my top100 list isn't that it's not good enough musically, but what it means, what it stands for.

Angel Corpse - Exterminate

Raging death/black metal. The graces of this record are compositional and aesthetic, not just of blunt force as many exclaim. Their singer has taken the time to craft the rhythmics of his vocal delivery in such a way that, although his range is limited, whenever he rips through his verses and choruses, the music flows onward. Most death/black vocals are throwaway rasps ("well, someone has to sing something, this isn't Cynic for goat's sake!"), or timekeepers at best. The riffery is of high quality as well, warped and adventurous it underlines the feeling of triumph and transmogrification that the whole of this achieves. I rarely listen to this genre because its exact problem is lack of flow and cohesion between parts, as well as aesthetic dullness. Angel Corpse are sharp. They achieve a strange sense of beauty with their death/thrash that would be envied by high caliber progressive metal bands. Part of it is that the beats they hit are few and work well together (for example, the tempo is usually fast or faster -- easier to write music that flows when there aren't many meter shifts) but the talent, forethought and hard work that went into this record cannot be denied.

All that said, I do not have a strong like for blasphemy and iconoclasm as an end in itself and this is the concept in which Angel Corpse at this stage in their career were working within. There is no shock for me nor is there any empowerment at christmaiming lyrics. It is a small shame because seriously, these are some of the best Heavy Metal lyrics written from a technical and aesthetic standpoint. Eloquent and well-considered as rhythmic devices that capture attention. I can feel that the singer and lyricist here (I deny the possibility that they are two different people) spent a long amount of time just shifting words back and forth, finding synonyms for words that lend to a better cadence and so on.

At the end of the day this music screams 'Assertion of Will on the Weak' to me and the question begged is what the one asserting is obfuscating in their own psyche that compels them to this demagoguery. These questions are not acknowledged, much less answered here and that's what I would have liked of Angel Corpse to consider this a perfect record. Am I asking too much? I think that in that this record compels me to rise my expectations of what a christraping black/death record can do you may glean how impressed I am with its quality.


  1. Just out of curiosity, what do you think of Gardens of Grief? I find myself going back to it more than The Red in the Sky is Ours.

    Also, your feeling about the way Angelcorpse lyrics are crafted is correct. From an interview with the vocalist:

    "It's all about just the way the consonants and the vowels flow together and the syncopation and all that. Everything! It's so, so important -- and I agonise over like, which adjective to use before the other one, and do I reverse the order of this line just to make it either more subtle, less subtle, more obscure, less obscure, you know what I mean?"

  2. I like Gardens of Grief too. The songs from there they re-record for their debut I prefer on the EP too. It is also by nature a less daunting task to sit and listen to it in its entirety.

    However the same compositional 'issue' (I use quotes because it could be argued At the Gates even at their young age at the time knew fairly well the burdens of their approach and embraced them to turn them into a strength) is there too. The music has interchangeable parts and almost never lets up to provide breathing space and juxtapose the dense metal parts with something else that could perhaps give identity to their material on a song by song basis.

    Thank you for your comment, Supreme :)

  3. Although it would've been cool to see what you have to say about my favourite death metal album Mental Funeral in the archtypical lengthy Helm-way, I'm still pleased to read about these other albums that almost made it to the list. I like a lot some of them myself but I wouldn't include them in my top 100 list either. Well perhaps The Red in the Sky is Ours could still make it despite it's little problems.

    Oh by the way, no love for Accept then?

  4. I listened to Accept long after I had studied Accept-students such as Helloween and so although I really like them, it's difficult for me to find space in my heart for them. Accept are the sort of band that, if you listen to them early in your Heavy Metal journey, they might just well become the most favorite band in the world. But it doesn't work that way in the reverse as easily. Other bands did with the Accept technique more advanced music that characterized my metal initiation in the power metal field.

  5. Just wanted to point out something important related to your review of Aftermath's Eyes of Tomorrow. In your review you mention that the record was released in 1994, which makes the record's release less important in the history of Thrash Metal. In reality most of the material on the record was written in the 1980s and recorded in 1990. The band finally signed a record deal in 1990 with Big Chief Records. Soon after the deal was signed, the label filed for bankruptcy. It took the band years to pay the studio bill and take control of the master tapes, which they finally released in 1994 on Zoid Recordings. So in reality, Eyes of Tomorrow was well ahead of its time, unfortunately, circumstances make several critics, like yourself - overlook the originality and significance of this release.

    Listen to the entire record with this new point of view and perhaps it will take its place in your top 100 list. Go back and listen to the band's Killing the Future and Words that Echo Fear demos and I bet that it will make your Top 20.

  6. peter, thanks for the info. Aftermath got a bum deal. What with that situation and also getting into a name dispute with the rap music company.

    I wouldn't call 1990 well ahead of the time of technothrash, but it's certainly during its heyday, and that does change the historical appreciation angle somewhat, yes.

    I have the Killing the Future demo, and I do enjoy it.