Babes In Toyland: Spanking Machine

spankingmachine

It’s wonderful to think that in 1989, years before I would hear of this band, legendary producer Jack Endino (Soundgarden, Nirvana, Mudhoney, and on and on), or the phrase “riot grrrl,” Minneapolis band Babes In Toyland trekked out to Seattle to work with Jack Endino on their debut album, Spanking Machine, which would be released in 1990 on Minnesota label Twin/Tone Records. It’s also wonderful to hear that, even a few years before they would make their biggest mark on the scene with 1992’s Fontanelle, an album that only could have sold as much as it did in the major label gold rush of the post-Nevermind era, this trio had just as much energy, rage, and skill as they would a few years later.

“Why did you leave me/When I was still inside of you,” Kat Bjelland howls on the wonderfully angry “Pain In My Heart,” while her guitar scrapes along against the brick and metal of the cold, dark alley her voice is stumbling through. Digging out of her angst she picks up steam midway through the song to unleash a torrent: “Fry fucking fry fucking fry fucking my blue boyfriend.” It’s raw. There isn’t a lot of twenty-something angst that still registers much more than an eye roll in this mid-life shell of mine, but it’s impossible not to be pissed at The Man and really just everything when you listen to this.

Keep in mind this is five years before Sleater-Kinney’s debut album. Five! And this is significantly better. It’s far more well-crafted: the songs are more songy, the rage is better channeled but no less potent. Now, Sleater-Kinney would move on from this kind of sound for their second (and subsequent) albums, and for good reason given that Babes In Toyland had already broken up by that time and, in my opinion, basically mastered the riot grrrl thing. Now, I realize it’s kind of icky for me to compare two punk bands made up of three women each, but to be fair I really do think S-K’s debut album looks back pretty clearly at Babes In Toyland’s discography, a distinct sound I really haven’t encountered elsewhere.

There are some meh points here, notably in the middle of the album where I feel like they sequenced some changes of pace to try to break up the emotional and sonic assault they bring at the top and end of the album. “Dogg,” a bluesy dirge sung by drummer Lori Barbero, works, but “Boto (W) Rap” and, though less of a divergence, “Never,” lose my interest a bit. But everything else you would get from Babes In Toyland on their later albums, like the raging, in-tune-only-when-we-want-to-be howls, tempo shifts, uncompromising lyrics, downtuned guitars, evocatively palm-muted guitars, and, amazingly, sing-along (scream-along) vocal melodies. It’s a great start to an all-too-short career for this band.

Rating:
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Mix: “Fork Down Throat”
Really Like:
“He’s My Thing,” “Dogg,” “Pain In My Heart”
Like: 
“Swamp Pussy,” “Vomit Heart,” “Lashes,” “You’re Right,” “Dust Cake Boy”
Meh: “Never,” “Boto (W) Rap”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

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Year Of The Goat: The Unspeakable

theunspeakable

This review marks two Swedish bands in a row, and I’m learning from this Metal-Addicts link that they’re both categorized as “Occult Rock.” Hmm.

Well, I can hear the similarities. Vocally, it’s a clearly sung tenor. Lyrically it’s pretty mystical stuff; Year Of The Goat seems to more of a Wiccan bent, in opposition to the pretty clear Satanism of Ghost. Musically the genre seems to owe a lot to early 80’s metal, like Ozzy Osbourne or Dio (and I wouldn’t be surprised if “Occult Rock” traced its roots back to those artists), most of which is hardly recognizable as what passes for metal now. It’s got moderate tempi and a relatively clean guitar tone with plenty of room for all the instruments and even keyboards and background vocals to breathe.

The most prominent difference between this and Ghost’s latest album is the production, in particular the sound quality. I know it gets pretty broken record of me, but I’ve heard some pretty good sounding records in 2015, and it’s unfortunate that too often some very good songs here get buried under sound that’s way too hot and peaking throughout the entire song.

I don’t know that The Unspeakable would have got much higher than three clowns with better sound, as some of the songs are weak and much longer than they need to be (though they manage to pull off a nearly 13-minute long track to open the album admirably). The last two tracks, and in particular the penultimate, are the worst of the patience-pushers. I do know, though, that it would at least be three clowns with better sound, and I’d love to hear better-sounding versions of the stretch in the middle that runs from “Vermin” through “The Wind.” As it is, it’s just not that fun to listen to.

Rating:
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Like: “All He Has Read,”  “Pillars Of The South”
Meh: “The Emma”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Ghost: Meliora

meliora

I’ve had a really good run of metal reviews over the past few weeks, and, with the obvious exception of Myrkur, this is probably my least favorite. However, this is the toughest one to say goodbye to and move on from. This Swedish (though we won’t hold that against them) band has quite a colorful personality. From their Wikipedia entry:

Five of the group’s six members wear virtually identical, face-concealing costumes. The most distinguishable member is the vocalist, who wears a prosthetic face with skull face paint, appearing as what can be described as a “demonic anti-Pope.” … The band members’ true identities are kept anonymous.

The group’s vocalist portrays the band’s mascot character, a Satanic priest known as Papa Emeritus. There have been three different characters taking the name Papa Emeritus, each younger than the last. … [T]he second Papa Emeritus welcomed his younger brother as the new Papa Emeritus…after being “fired” due to not performing his duty in overthrowing governments and churches.

Okay, so a Scandinavian metal band is acting mysterious and attracting attention due to their “Satanism.” There’s not much new there, but the way these guys do it is almost sweet and charming. There aren’t any cookie monster vocals, the melodies, driven in large part by keys, are at the forefront, and the tempi sound more like Blue Öyster Cult than anything released as metal since the 90’s, and, as far as I can tell, they haven’t burned down any 1000-year-old churches. This is my kind of satanic. When, in “He Is,” they sing “Two star-crossed lovers reaching out/To the beast with many names,” it makes Satanism appear tender and romantic.

In fact, I wonder if the biggest part of their controversy is because the music is so sugary-sweet and accessible, at times recalling Asia or ELO, and the lyrics are understandable, thus creating an easier gateway into the dark arts than screaming scary, nearly rabid dudes. For my part, I wish that, at these tempi, they would be heavier, more like the fuzzed-out Khemmis. But, then again, that’s not quite right…it’s more like I wish the production were bigger, more epic, to match the Classical bent of the lyrics (there are parts of “He Is” sung in Latin) and the grandeur of the band’s theme. I guess I just wish it sounded more like the cover looks.

See what I mean about this being the worst of the great metal albums I’ve been reviewing lately? And it is damned good, its 41 minutes passing effortlessly and enjoyably, even if they leave you wanting a bit more. And so now I move on to the next album and, due to this record’s accessibility and catchiness, will probably remember my time with it even more fondly than it actually was. That’s not such a bad thing.

Rating:
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Love: “Deus In Absentia”
Really Like:
“From The Pinnacle To The Pit,” “He Is,” “Mummy Dust,”  “Absolution”
Like: 
“Spirit,” “Cirice,” “Majesty,” “Devil Church”
Meh: “Spöksonat”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Cattle Decapitation: The Anthropocene Extinction

theanthropoceneextinction

Let’s take some time to focus on this album cover for a minute. First, let’s go to the uncharacteristically understated title presentation and its somnambulant sound, The Anthropocene Extinction. Basically the extinction of humans. Which is such fertile ground for metal bands to mine. In the 80’s it was (mostly) nuclear war with some environmental issues thrown in. Now it’s primarily environmental issues, which, I guess you can look at as a glass-half-full thing…we got better on the immediate annihilation, despite not developing a long-term concern for our species’ survival.

Anyway, after that we’ve got factories, trash, pollution (that oddly seems to keep flowing even after we’re extinct), and, my favorite, corpses that are rotting from the insides out due to being filled with drugs and sundry other pollutants. Gee, what do you think they’re trying to say here? To be fair, though, it’s nice of a practitioner of grindcore, one of metal’s many genres to feature growly vocals, to clearly say something somewhere.

And in fact, lead vocalist Travis Ryan is relatively easy to understand, both in the growled verses and the shrill-ly-sung choruses. Furthermore, that clarity makes Cattle Decapitation even more intense, because these lyrics don’t screw around. As you can imagine, they’re basically about how horrible everything is and how we’re marching ourselves towards extinction. What you might not guess, unless you really puzzled over the band’s name, is that the band was initially a hard-core vegetarian band and only recently seems to have veered into other social issues. (I encourage you to click through and take a look at some of their other wonderful album covers.)

So growled but sometimes sung vocals, but what else is there in this music? Well I had to look some of this up myself, but apparently grindcore’s most defining characteristic is its blast beats, which I learned basically means 16th-note rhythms on percussion. And, although the band lists a drummer, I find it impossible to believe that much of this was played by a human. I’d even be surprised if they hide the fact that much of this drumming was done with a sequenced drum machine. Which is generally not a big deal, but it’s definitely an aesthetic that you have these machine-gun fires that just feel light, automated, and electronic. Beyond that you’ve also got really crunchy guitar and bass interspersed with guitar solos that are so ridiculously fast you really have to pay attention to realize that, oh my god, Josh Elmore has written some really cool leads in there.

It’s a pretty intense onslaught, but it’s also crafted carefully enough that if you have the ability and willingness to give it a chance, you can warm up to it. This collection of 12 tracks works really well as an album. It’s thematic, it’s sequenced well. The production, however, is mixed. It sounds pretty good on over-ear ‘phones and middling earbuds, but if your earbuds are too good then this is a victim to the loudness wars and there’s too much cracking and popping.

I remember when I first saw the name Cattle Decapitation and their logo a few years ago, it seemed like such a ridiculous joke. And, let’s be honest, there’s still a lot that’s ridiculous here, but we’re living in an era where media (every definition of that word) and current events are positively ridiculous. When viewed through that lens, the events that cause so much of America to just shake their heads disbelievingly, it makes just as much sense to react to it with a sound, look, message, and even name like the one provided here (though I can’t quite understand how people from San Diego can be this angry). I don’t know if I can say I’m into grindcore, or deathgrind, or grindgore, or whatever, but I can say I’m a Cattle Decapitation fan.

Rating:
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Really Like: “Plagueborne,” “Circo Inhumanitas,” “Not Suitable For Life”
Like: 
“Manufactured Extinct,” “The Prophets Of Loss,” “Clandestine Ways (Krokodil Rot),” “Mammals In Babylon,” “Apex Blasphemy,” “Pacific Grim”
Meh: “The Burden Of Seven Billion,” “Mutual Assured Destruction,” “Ave Exitium”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Myrkur: M

m

Myrkur got a lot of attention this summer when she released her album M. Both from haters, who said it wasn’t metal, and from praisers who said, I don’t know, that the haters were misogynists who only liked a very narrow genre of metal? No idea, because I’m with the haters here. Not because she’s a woman, nor because it’s different than music I usually listen to (yeah, right), nor because it’s in Danish, nor because it has some electronics in it, and not even because it’s not metal, because it most assuredly is not metal (though it has plenty of metal elements in it and even some metal tracks on it), but rather because it’s just mostly boring.

She really could have wrapped this thing up after album opener “Skøgen Skulle Dø” where she kind of lays out everything she can do in one track. There’s some black metal vocals, creative electronic sounds layered atmospherically throughout, choral singing, and heavily reverbed drums. Unfortunately the song also highlights what she does worst, which is be completely boring and repetitive. Those drums thud along over a droney “bagpipe” track that repeats at least four, if not eight, times more than they need to on a song that is over five minutes but could have probably had the same effect at about three.

After that it’s ten more tracks that run what, if well executed, would have been an impressive range of styles, from some of the scariest black metal shrieks I’ve ever heard (“Hævnen”) to lullabies (“Byssan Lull”). With a complete dearth of songwriting skill, never does she deign to give you some kind of theme or anything more interesting than production value. It’s like two lullaby snoozer tracks and then a plodding black metal track ad nauseum. It sounds crazy to say that a female black metal vocalist who mixes in a range of styles and electronic instrumentation would be boring, but that’s what you have here. I’m almost impressed that she took such great raw ingredients and made them so boring…it’s like knocking down just the 10 pin in bowling…how do you do that?

I’m obviously at odds with most of the critical community here. And they will probably dismiss this as an inflexibility to some new fantastic genre of metal I’m just too old to get. But god there are maybe six minutes of interesting things on here that are worth listening to. (Also note I didn’t Dislike much.) After that it’s just boring, 4/4 bass strumming along to “blichem blichem blichem” drums, and Myrkur singing over a lute. *Yawn*

Rating:
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Like: “Skøgen Skulle Dø”
Meh: “Hævnen,” “Onde Børn,” “Vølvens Spådom,” “Jeg Er Guden, I Er Tjenerne,” “Mordet,” “Byssan Lull,” “Dybt I Skoven,” “Skaði,” “Norn”
Dislike: “Nordlys”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Khemmis: Absolution

absolution

When I last left you, I mentioned that Trials’ final album had too little bass for my taste. That’s par for the course for thrash, and solving that problem is the genre of doom/stoner metal and, more specifically, Khemmis’ album, Absolution. These guys have given us just the perfect amount of fuzzed out low-end guitar and bass. I feel like this is what Brothers Of The Sonic Cloth wanted to sound like.

Another difference between this and Trials is that the ratio of sung to growled vocals is pretty much inverted, with us getting more like 70-80% sung lines here. Which is appropriate because this guy’s (I can’t find his name) voice is much fuller than Mark Sugar’s.

Anyway, enough of Trials for now. Today is Khemmis’ day. They’re bringing it here with six tracks that range in length from five-and-a-half to nine minutes.The drums rumble down the mountains and bowl you over without any slowing down on their way from Valhalla to the underworld. The horseman of the apocalypse occasionally raise up an anthemic war cry on vocals and guitar, urging the pounding hooves of their bass horses forward, forward. Powerful, unrelenting, full. And yet all in a very appealing, beautiful way. This isn’t punishing at all. Instead, empowerment is what’s brought by the timbre, pace, and line of the riffs.

On what seems to be their debut album(!), Khemmis can plod a little bit, which is basically the stoner/doom genre’s analogous problem to thrash’s lack of bottom end. And in fact, for a doom band the band is remarkably restrained, cutting almost all of the fat and staying focused on a propellant forward thrust.

Listen on headphones. Listen loud. Close your eyes and imagine you’re listening to Kyuss…it’s not hard. I can’t wait to hear more from these guys.

Rating:
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Mix: “Burden Of Sin”
Really Like: “Torn Asunder,” “Ash, Cinder, Smoke,” “The Bereaved”
Like: “Serpentine,” “Antediluvian”
Song Notes: After the jump Continue reading

Trials: This Ruined World

thisruinedworld

For the second album review in a row, I’m reviewing an album of a band who’s recently become defunct. Thankfully, at least as far as I know, nobody from Trials has died. However, their Facebook page has a recent announcement that they’re no longer active. I’m worried that me planning to review a great album is now becoming some kind of kiss of death for bands.

This is a damned shame, since this is an awesome thrash metal album. Thrash is kind of an underserved genre in this decade. I’ve raved about Reign Of Fury on this website, but Trials differs from them in a couple of ways. While Reign Of Fury is unapologetically throwback, Trials is definitely of the present. The most obvious difference between this and 80’s thrash is that Trials has eschewed the Joey Belladonna soaring vocals style and brought in more of a death metal growl to the mix. When vocalist Mark Sugar does go into a singing style, which I’d say is about 15-20% of the vocals on the album, it’s more in line with a tough baritone more similar to Metallica’s James Hetfield than the more operatic bent of some of most famous thrash bands.

Speaking of Metallica, This Ruined World, can kind of be seen as an alternative sequel to Master Of Puppets, if Metallica had gone a slightly different route than they did on …And Justice For All. And speaking of …And Justice For All, one aspect of this album that is unfortunately not updated from 80’s thrash is the lack of bass. I even had to look it up to make sure the band did employ a bassist. They report that they do, but she’s buried awfully deep in the mix, giving the sound a feel that is, at times, too thin and mid-range. But that’s like my only complaint. Everything else is a wonderful mix of what worked 25 years ago and what’s awesome now.

And one thing I really appreciate about metal, and thrash in particular, is that it’s been the only genre of music that’s reliably deigned to take on messaging around current events over the past few decades is metal. On this album you’ve got rants against politics and TV news (“Truth Defiled”), religion (“Don’t Believe The Word”), probably the Catholic church sex abuse scandal (“They Hide Behind The Law”), and the environment (the title track).

With This Ruined World, Trials have made an almost perfect thrash metal album. I’m pissed that they’ve broken up. Will my next review break the Fat Clown curse? Stay tuned.

Rating:
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Mix: “Disgraced And Erased”
Love: “Blink Of An Eye”
Really Like: “Truth Defiled,” “Beat The System To Death,” “They Hide Behind The Law,” “This Ruined World”
Like: “Don’t Believe The Word,” “Digging My Own Grave,” “Inheritance”
Song Notes: None