Soundchecks Music Reviews
FROM DOOM TO PROGRESSIVE:
by Octavio Ramos Jr
BEST METAL ALBUMS 2009
Now that a decade has come to a close, it is time once again to examine the status of the world of heavy metal. At its core, metal continues to thrive underground, where so many bands have managed to create esoteric but accessible sounds that ranged from the filthy and vile to the moving and sardonic. Bands such as Isis, The Great Misdirect, God Dethroned, Napalm Death, Mastodon, Anaal Nathrahk, Isole, My Dying Bride, Sybreed, and Goatwhore produced incredible albums that more than met the needs of their enthralled listeners.
While many aboveground metal bands continued to produce less-than-stellar music, some grizzled veterans flexed their muscles to demonstrate that there still remained righteousness in old-school heaviness and power. Bands such as Slayer, Black Sabbath (skulking as Heaven And Hell), and Megadeath put to shame the likes of Metallica and a plethora of hardcore bands.
Top-ten lists are dangerous affairs, as they tend to fuel debate. Nevertheless, here is my listing of 2009's heavy-metal albums, chosen from metal subgenres. Compiling such a list is a difficult task, but it did allow me again to listen to some truly moving music. So, without further delay...
THE DEVIL YOU KNOW
Heaven And Hell
The kings-of-metal line-up that produced 1981's The Mob Rules strikes again, this time merging the sounds of the past with the more modern sounds of Dehumaniser. The end result is The Devil You Know, which may sound relatively straightforward on the first play but offers plenty of guitar- and bass-driven gems for listeners patient enough to play the CD over and over. Bassist Geezer Butler is a master of four strings, his low-end licks punching through drummer Vinnie Appice's catchy rolls and fills. Guitarist Tony Iommi (Iommi) aptly demonstrates that he remains the master of the riff, particularly on tracks such as the scorcher Bible Black, and the epic Breaking Into Heaven. And then there's Ronnie James Dio, whose powerful lungs continue to help him produce his signature snarls and sweeping melodies. Just writing about this album makes me want to play it again - right now.
HOUR OF DESPAIR
Formed in 1987 and hailing from Texas, Solitude Aeturnus follow-up 2006's Alone with this 12-track slab of excellent doom metal. As always, vocalist Rob Lowe delivers a mournful performance, his harmonies and wails sweeping over the guitars of John Perez and Steve Moseley. The band members continue to embrace other forms of music, incorporating such sounds into their collective. Thus, the track Scent Of Death taps into middle eastern folk music and Destiny Falls To Ruin possesses all the swagger of Black Sabbath at their height with Ozzy Osbourne. Not as well known as Candlemass (a band that Lowe also fronts), Solitude Aeturnus is a stronger, more cohesive doom unit.
MONOLITHS & DIMENSIONS
In the world of drone, Sun O))) are undisputed leaders. Last year's Monoliths & Dimensions is a feast for weary ears, its four tracks all clocking in at more than nine minutes each. Masterminds Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley churn out some heavy and distorted rhythms, harnessing the feedback and noise of their instruments into a dreamy and, at times, nightmarish blend of whirrs, hums, and subsonic harmonies. Contributing to this album are none other than Atilla Csihar, throat for bands such as Aborym, Keep Of Halessin, and Mayhem; and Steven Moore, who handles the electronics and keyboards. A word of warning: Sun O))) are not for the mainstream or fainthearted. Only those who have a thorough appreciation of drone metal should bother.
Georgia's Baroness build upon 2007's Red Album to produce this head trip, which packs in plenty of the psychedelic into a core of groove and heaviness. Hints of Led Zeppelin (on Blackpowder Orchard and The Gnashing) fill the air as melodic guitars, courtesy of John Baizley and Peter Adams, interweave and separate at will. Thick, dense, sludge metal riffs are complemented by harmonic rhythms and hook-driven solos. Medieval tones dance with more aggressive and modern sounds, and at times it seems like the whole thing might fall apart, but the band never falters, instead setting off in yet another interesting musical direction. Beautiful acoustic guitars are also used to infuse the tracks with an otherworldly sound. Magical, spiritual, and moving, Blue Record is a breath of fresh air in a musical genre often overlooked by more mainstream listeners.
ALL SHALL FALL
Often overlooked because of their penchant for corpse paint and spike-laden clothing, Norway's Immortal nevertheless remain a shining light in the world of nail-biting black metal. Although the subgenre in general has moved into more progressive directions, Immortal continue to shred with old-school intensity. All Shall Fall has a distinctly modern sound, one with much cleaner instrumentation and production, but at its core the sound remains Immortal. The 'noise' factor remains high, with the bass and guitar so heavily distorted that often both feed off each other. Percussion consists of a barrage of master-blasters, and vocals screech with raspy aplomb. Hints of more epic structures and some keyboard stings bolster the songs, giving them an icy quality sorely missed from the old days. Fans of black metal need this one in their nihilistic lives.
THOSE WHOM THE GODS DETEST
Around since the early 1990s, South Carolina's Nile have been churning out a brutal yet overtly technical style of death metal. Those Whom The Gods Detest finds the band at the apex of their instrumental prowess. Each song here is a clinic on how to produce immaculate death metal. Percussion is flawless, with drummer George Kollias (Sickening Horror and The Circle Of Zaphyan) switching gears at will, one moment blasting away at breakneck speed and the next pulling back and showcasing a heavier, denser side. The duo of Karl Sanders and Dallas Toler-Wade handle the guitars, bass, and keyboards, all of which tap into Nile's obsession with Egyptian culture and mythology. Sander's vocals reign supreme, his bark as mean as his bite. As for the guitars, they feel like blisters, painful and always noticeable. When it comes of 'Ithyphallic metal', Those Whom The Gods Detest simply cannot be topped, until Nile decides to produce yet another scorcher of the same magnitude.
Poland's Behemoth delve deeper into that obsidian well with Evangelion. And even though the band's core sound remains rooted in death metal, the overall atmosphere is darker, with the guitars in particular tapping into the raspy, shriek-laden sound that the best of black metal has to offer. Behemoth also continue to explore the sounds of the middle east, going so far as to showcase such experimentation as minor interludes on some songs, such as Shemaforash, and He Who Breeds Pestilence. Variety in pace and structure adds to the ambiance, with intensity and heaviness interbred at will. An undercurrent of power seems to swell during each song, with Nergal's angry bark holding back an onslaught of what best could be termed 'musical hell'.
Germany's Leaves' Eyes, fronted by Norway's pristine goddess Liv Kristine, come into their own with their latest release, Njord. Guitarists Thorsten Bauer and Mathias Roderer are standouts from start to finish, their barrage of riffs driven by power metal and the new wave of British heavy metal. The combination of songs will impress most fans, with hard-driving tracks such as My Destiny, and Through Our Veins contrasted by softer fare, such as Irish Rain, and a cover of Simon and Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair. Hardcore fans of the band's signature sound of epic power metal have nothing to fear, as tracks such as Emerald Island, Northbound, and the rousing epic Ragnarok hearken to the past yet also underscore the band's new approach. So much of the modern symphonic power metal genre sounds the same that it's refreshing when a band can stand out from the back. Such a band is Leaves' Eyes.
Formed in late 1983, Megadeth for many years lurked in Metallica's shadow. During the 1990s Megadeth took the upper hand, as Metallica grew softer and softer. With 2009's Endgame, Megadeth easily stomp the snot out of Metallica's 2008 Death Magnetic. Although there are other bands out there vying for the coveted thrash throne, Megadeth demonstrate that they wear the crown alone. Vocalist and guitarist Dave Mustaine really kicks out the jams from track to track, varying pace and structure enough to keep things interesting but always mindful that thrash is best when performed fast and furious. Second axeman Chris Broderick (Ballistic and Jag Panzer) complements Mustaine's fret-burning guitar slams and bassist James Lomenzo (White Lion and Black Label Society) asserts himself with a battery of resounding low notes. And then there's drummer Shawn Drover, who keeps things hard and heavy with some tank-rolling percussion. If you love technical but aggressive guitars, then these riff-masters are definitely for you.
Progressive metal chameleons Queensryche have been hit or miss of late, but 2009's American Soldier showcases an unrivalled understanding of musical excellence coupled with relevant lyrical subject matter that touches the core of human social and political spectrums. The concept behind American Soldier began when vocalist Geoff Tate had a conversation with his father, a veteran of World War II. Tate then went on to interview other veterans, recording some of their anecdotes and peppering them throughout his songs. The end result is a very personal album, one that focuses on the many effects of war on American servicemen and servicewomen. Yes, American Soldier lacks the immediacy of Operation: Mindcrime or the catchiness of Empire. However, it is an extremely moving and compelling album, one that given time may gain a following from those willing to give it a chance.
for PIGASUS Press