Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The gift of rock and roll: Making sense of Deep Purple's messy half-century sprawl

"We're gonna give you some rock and roll," David Coverdale says calmly at the outset of the live Deep Purple release Graz 1975. Was a truer bit of stage banter ever captured? I spun this album again yesterday, along with parts of the band's earlier, iconic live album Made in Japan (recorded in '72 with a different lineup), and I was re-shocked by, well, the degree to which it all just fucking rocks.


The slashing Ritchie Blackmore intro riff at 1:10, the way the band explodes out of the gate, Jon Lord's keys gleaming through the mix in all their gothic glory, Ian Paice tumbling through the verses like the Tasmanian Devil, Coverdale and Glenn Hughes proudly belting out those operatic harmonized "buuuuuuurn" harmonies. And then my favorite section, the little post-chorus coda around 3:00, with Hughes crooning that beautiful "You know we had no tiiiiiiime" melody. Blackmore and Lord's neoclassical duo/solo, and so on.

I could continue (and I could just as easily have picked the godly 19-minute "Space Truckin'" from Made in Japan to go off on) but what I mean to convey is just the Dionysian rush of it all, the abandon and the fun of this band at their peak — or one of their many peaks. How clearly this track demonstrates the fact that the less you use your brain (really as a listener or as a player, in the moment at least), the better rock and roll sounds and feels. And I'm not slighting the virtuosity of the musicians in the least bit. I really just mean that, of all the great, old British hard-rock overlords, Deep Purple seem to me to be the most connected to the party at the heart of the genre, the Little Richard/Jerry Lee Lewis rave-up mentality, so that when Coveradale says, "We're gonna give you some rock and roll," what he really means is, "We're gonna free you from your mind and electrify your body."

This was Deep Purple's stock-in-trade during their so-called Mk. II, Mk. III and Mk. IV glory years (roughly '69–'76). The personnel changed and the sound broadened, but as I hear it, that fundamental mission didn't waver. A core dedication to honoring that principle of liberation, of bombast and explosive power, of whatever the opposite of overthinking is.

And yet, looking back, the members seem somewhat conflicted when it comes to the "turn off your brain" mindset. In the Classic Albums doc on the making of the band's iconic Machine Head LP, Blackmore discusses being almost embarrassed when he came up with the "Space Truckin'" chorus riff. "I took it to Ian Gillan and I said, 'I have this idea but it's so ridiculous. It's so silly and simple that I don't think we can use it.'"

This concept comes up a lot in the doc, the idea of that line between "dumb" simplicity and genius — there's a great bit where Blackmore seems to need to invoke Beethoven to convince himself that the "Smoke on the Water" riff is really more highbrow than it seems. At another point, bassist Roger Glover chalks up the band's essential chemistry to the play between their virtuoso and intuitive factions. "Purple was really, to me, it was two elements: It was the superb musicianship of Ritchie, Jon and Ian Paice, and sort the naive, homemade, simple quality of songwriting that Ian Gillan and I brought to the band."

This whole discussion touches on my own early misjudging of this band as somewhat pedestrian. I caught the Sabbath and Zeppelin bug years ago, but moving on, as one does, to Deep Purple — and I'm not proud to say this, but as I discussed in my Bruce Springsteen post a while back, I think it's important to own up to my initial prejudices about the classics; all the better to dismantle them  — I found myself turning up my nose a bit at them: "Highway Star," with its corny "Nobody gonna take my car/girl" conceit and so on. Not that Zeppelin wasn't guilty of same, but something about Machine Head just sounded not mean or aggressive enough to me. And it's true: Deep Purple as a band were not out for blood in the same way that Sabbath were, or out for pure world-swallowing sleaze the way Zeppelin were. There's something almost effete about them — watch interviews with Blackmore, Lord and Gillan and you'll see what I mean. They're the aristocratic gentlemen of hard rock, the ones who seem sort of tickled by the idea of the genre's primal power but seem to have a hard time really and truly immersing in it. (I think here of Gillan's dorky little march-dance around 2:00 in this 1972 live version of "Smoke on the Water," as though he doesn't feel quite comfortable really inhabiting the caveman snarl at the heart of the song.)

But at the same time, they were also consummate cock-rock showmen. Blackmore's scenery-chewing pyrotechnics here (which really heat up around 3:00) might be the most fun-to-watch guitar-heroism I've ever beheld:


This is how Paice puts it in the comprehensive and informative Heavy Metal Pioneers doc from '91: "My role was exactly what I wanted to be. I had no concept of being 'the drummer.' I was the star in the middle of the stage, and Ritchie was the star on the left of the stage, and Jon was the star on the right of the stage. We used to have this sort of permanent friendly battle: who was going to steal the limelight from the next guy."

So at the same time that there's a wariness of rock's core "ridiculous" qualities, there's also a reveling in them. And like most bands, Deep Purple were at their best when inhibition and "good taste" went out the window, when they could blast off from somewhat mundane raw materials (sometimes, in classic Zeppelin fashion, these were just borrowed scraps of old rock songs, as on "Speed King") into a kind of jam-fueled ecstasy. One reason the Coverdale/Hughes era is so badass is that everyone seems to be on the same page about what the band's M.O. is, namely to "give you some rock and roll," plain and simple, without the slightest bit of hand-wringing. Their shows were, for better or worse, textbook mid-'70s testosterone orgies, full of songs that implore women to get in line or get out of the way.

But whether due to lineup shuffling, squabbling over musical direction or even death (RIP Tommy Bolin), Deep Purple never seemed to stay in one phase very long. The band always seemed to be wrestling with what it wanted to be, which might explain why it has been so incredibly many different things over the years, whether that was the stuffy but remarkably developed prog/psych unit of the Mk. I period; the hugely versatile and charismatic Mk. II (it completely blows my mind that in the same year, 1969, this group recorded Jon Lord's monumentally ambitious Concerto for Group and Orchestra with the Royal Philharmonic — probably the most engaging and convincing "classical fusion" project I've ever heard — as well as portions of the stupendously raw and greasy proto-metal mission statement Deep Purple In Rock), who in their own minds shot wide of the mark post–In Rock with the fussier Fireball before correcting the course on the no-frills Machine Head; the soulful and unabashedly preening Mk. III/IV; and so on, all the way up to the impressively cohesive Mk. VIII — heard on the band's latest LP, Infinite — which to my ears is maybe their most enjoyable incarnation since the mid-'70s, mainly because despite being occasionally spotty on a song-for-song level doesn't suffer from the at first convincingly but later somewhat depressingly streamlined quality of the Deep Purple of the '80s and early '90s, where the band seemed to gradually straitjacket itself within a radio rock format (probably as a result of Blackmore's rumored desire, alluded to here, to turn Deep Purple into Foreigner), writing the occasional good song (Perfect Strangers, esp. the title track and "Knocking on Your Back Door," marked a convincing '80s-ification of the classic Deep Purple sound, and I have a soft spot for the catchy-as-hell cheesefest "King of Dreams", from the brief, ill-fated Joe Lynn Turner era) but losing sight of the looseness and abandon that makes, say, that Graz 1975 set so much fun.

Wading through a good chunk of the Deep Purple catalog during the past month or so — and I ought to note that I have Lars Ulrich and Opeth's Mikael Åkerfeldt to thank for this listening jag; both cited different Deep Purple records on their Rolling Stone lists of their favorite metal albums and it inspired me to give this catalog another shot — has been somewhat baffling and occasionally exhausting (I'll admit to hitting the skids around the House of Blue Light era), but the peaks have been well worth it. The band no longer seems like some sort of third-place finisher to me in the great late-'60s/early-'70s hard-rock grand prix. Their occasional corniness or awkwardness, their sometimes muddled aesthetic is really beside the point, because when they locked in and found common ground during this or that period, they were as awe-inspiring as any rock band I've ever heard. On In Rock; on the absurdly rocking "Black Night"; on the majestic, hard-grooving Stormbringer; on Come Taste the Band (their first post-Blackmore album but to my ears, as good as anything from the earlier period; proggy instrumental "Owed to G" is a crucial DP deep cut); on Graz 1975; on Made in Japan (which, to me, even more than Machine Head, in some ways feels like the quintessential Deep Purple album); on the stunning and at times even scary California Jam footage (with Blackmore's infamous exploding-amp gag that could have literally blown up the band). On this 1970 "Child in Time":



The very essence of power-ballad-dom, with fire-and-brimstone peaks (or depths) as heavenly/infernal as anything in the Zeppelin oeuvre. Elegantly destructive, a masterful hush-to-howl opus.

These days Deep Purple aren't soaring quite as high — who could? — but their current music is worth hearing because they seem completely comfortable with their weird, shapeshifting eccentricity, playing borderline-pedestrian blues-rock one moment and sci-fi-infused gothic prog the next. In the latter vein, a track like Infinite's "The Surprising" seems as close to the early spirit of the band — in their super-nerdy, fussily awesome proto-prog guise — as anything they've done since. They finally seem comfortable with the idea of not choosing any one sound, free of the power struggles, aesthetic and otherwise (I'm looking at you, Ritchie), that have defined their history. Embracing all of it: the smart and the dumb, the lofty and the primal, the raucous and the refined.

What I wonder is, could there ever be a band like this again? An arena-filling, mega-selling juggernaut that also has the time and the space to stretch out, achieving — over years and years and years — staggering triumphs, running head-on into aesthetic walls, shedding members, taking on new ones, inviting back old ones, righting itself, falling flat again, soldiering on, winning acclaim, inviting derision, becoming a kind of self-parody even as they become immortal. What I'm trying to say is, it's a fucking saga, the Deep Purple story, maybe the most convoluted one in so-called classic rock, and it's also an absolute delight to muddle through, just because of how big and sprawling and messy it is. (I think of the great testimonial quote in the trailer for the Descendents/ALL doc Filmage where Hagfish's Doni Blair says, "You have to be a fan at the whole thing" — see around 2:30 here — which is a great way to sum up up the sort of zen attitude of appreciation and acceptance you reach after you take the time to make sense of a catalog this massive.) You don't have to love everything but you revel in the muchness of it all, marveling even at what you don't happen to like, because what it is, is a life in music, an adaptation to decades' worth of fickle audience tastes and market demands. Blackmore's out, Lord's gone (RIP), but Gillan and Paice are still on the road, fighting the good fight, roughly 50 years after the band's formation.

Everything that's happened in between is worth treasuring, precisely because it could never happen again, or not in the same way. And goddamn, amid everything else they churned out, did they ever give us some rock and fucking roll.

/////

*This is all pretty new to me, so I'd be very interested to hear comments from anyone who has a firm grasp on the DP catalog: What are your favorite moments, either "classic" or obscure?

*Here are 15 Deep Purple songs I love, spanning many periods:

Friday, July 21, 2017

Infinity again: On Fushitsusha's radical songmaking

It is very possible that tonight's Fushitsusha performance at Pioneer Works — co-presented by Blank Forms, and part of a highly impressive series of gigs going down as part of the Grand Ole Opera exhibit; I caught Black Pus there a couple weeks back — is still in progress. (I left before the end not because I was disappointed, not remotely so, but because I felt I had simply taken in as much musical/aesthetic information as I could for one night.) Which is apt, because there is what I would call a forever quality to the group's music, a sense that no matter how long one of their pieces actually lasts — and from what I heard, that could be anywhere from under 5 minutes to upwards of 20 — you can sort of sink into to the vibe or aura of it, get lost, roam around, disengage your brain and just exist within it. The time that you, and the musicians, spend with the piece may begin, end, but there's a sense that the idea or the substance of it was somehow there before, and will continue after.

Maybe this trio — leader Keiji Haino on whatever the hell he feels like playing at a given moment, along with current collaborators Morishige Yasumune on bass and Ryosuke Kiyasu on drums — conceptualized some of these pieces at earlier shows (possibly even at last night's concert at the same venue, billed as "Silent," whereas tonight's was called "Heavy") or rehearsals; maybe they'll pick them up again in the future. But each time they would begin a new piece, and I probably heard them play about seven or eight, it felt instantly sound, logical, focused in its way and delivered with direction and intent and some kind of form, though usually not any kind of conventional one. That form could take the shape of a sort of rubato vamp — as a friend of mine, Khanate and Blind Idiot God drummer Tim Wyskida, pointed out during a mid-show chat, the band often explores a "third" rhythmic space between strict metric time and fully free time — where Kiyasu would play a repeated series of figures (say, two massive thumps on the floor tom followed by one snare hit, a cymbal crash and four snare / hi-hat / bass drum accents) and Haino and Yasumune would sort of conjure a charred, convulsive field of sound over top. (One long piece in this vein at tonight's show felt massive and infinite, like the last rock band on earth hammering their instruments into oblivion atop some post-apocalyptic slag heap; probably not coincidentally, it also sounded a lot like the Melvins, and reminded me of the time I saw Haino and them play alternating sets as part of a film-score event back in '06.) Or it could manifest as a sort of negative-space anti-rock boogie, featuring Haino on almost jazzy clean-toned guitar, as sparse and scrappy as the aforementioned piece had been world-swallowing and epic. Or a hushed ghost blues featuring Haino on plaintive harmonica and spooky, pillowy toned vocals, like the result of some sort of supernatural after-hours session at Sun Studios. Or a brief, glorious, driving crunch-rock groove detour, over almost as soon as it began.

Or some other pattern or approach or sonic zone that Haino saw fit to engage with. He conferred with the other musicians often, both between and during pieces, sometimes whispering instructions into their ears, sometimes using hand signals — a swelling, both-hands-to-the-sky-motion; what looked like numbers traced in the air; "come-on" gestures that seemed to call for an intense response of some kind; or what seemed like rhythmic patterns being dictated; Ben Ratliff's discussion of Haino as a master of gesture ("It is about gesture: a scream, or a silence, or a sudden lunge, which says all there is to know at that moment") in a recent 4Columns essay seems apt here. The other musicians watched him intently and however dense or abstract the music got, they never seemed to be functioning in a state of abandon. Their movements and responses seemed ritualistic and highly deliberate, like physical mantras designed to help Haino and the music as a whole reach that place of ecstatic forever-ness. And again, that ecstasy was not always loud, overdriven, violent. Sometimes it was nimble, shadowy, delicate, with Kiyasu on brushes and Yasumune playing sparse sprinklings of notes. The contrasts and transitions were extremely shrewd, making this concert of ostensibly improvised music feel like a masterfully paced recital.

In some ways, Fushitsusha's method seems to render obsolete the composed vs. improvised question because to my ears they seem to be plucking songs out of the air — brutal ones, gossamer ones, epics, miniatures, etc. — and animating and inhabiting them through some secret group method that could just as easily be the product of meticulous rehearsal (as in drilling, repetition) as it could be the result of simply highly attentive jamming among musicians who know one another's reflexes and desires, just as they know the will and intent of their collective project. Which is, to my ears at least, to make something clear and defined each time out, a new song but also an eternal and inevitable one. We don't have the terminology for this method of music-making, or at least I'm not aware of any suitable words, but really all it is, is devoted band-ism, the construction of not just a group sound but a group way of existing. With Fushitsusha, the results of this practice are extremely varied; what's consistent is the sense of concentration and sincerity, spiked with an alluring and magical X factor, which is Haino's palpable rock-star aura, not just the borderline-iconic silver mane and shades but the possessed intensity and (again with the Sun Studios line of thinking) sort of diva-ish, just-shy-of-a-tantrum fury of his movements, musical phrases and wild vocal emanations.

You put all this together and you get a sort of wonderful paradox: a band that seems to be pushing past the limits of genre, of temporal constraints (again, they very well may still be playing down there in Red Hook, close to four hours after they began), of the way music — or performance of any kind — conventionally happens in front of an audience, while at the same time enacting the basic, primal ritual of rock-and-roll showmanship. Maybe it's just that we've been so dulled to the mystery, the potential, the infinity of the latter that we need to receive our songs in new, unfamiliar forms. So they can feel like forever again. And Fushitsusha's creations, in whatever guise, certainly do feel that way – and will hence.

/////

Postscript:
I'm aware that this group, in its various incarnations, has a vast discography stretching back something like 40 years. But though I know bits and pieces of Haino's recorded work, I'm hardly an expert in this sector of his back catalog. I welcome any recommendations re: great Fushitsusha albums in the comments: I'm genuinely curious to know if any recording could really bottle this band's lightning.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Aiming for forever: Krisiun's steady climb to greatness in the face of Metal Myopia












Note: The following post is presented with gratitude to the great Bill Ward, who included Krisiun's Southern Storm among his top 10 metal albums of all time, in a list that he assembled for RollingStone.com and later discussed with me in detail — see also this interview drawn from the same conversation, dealing with his current perspective on the Black Sabbath Siatution — thus inspiring me to really delve into this band's work for the first time.

What does a fan of death metal want? After following and living with this style of music for roughly 25 years, I'm starting to realize that there's no good answer to this question. Or at least no all-purpose one. It would seem that so-called extreme metal draws much, if not all, of its strength from its passionate, opinionated fan base — the ones who come to the gigs, buy the records (or at least illegally download them and argue about them on message boards) and T-shirts, and generally wave the flag for their favorite bands in quasi-patriotic fashion. In a resolutely anti-pop, or, one could even say, extra-pop (as in, outside of...), medium, your relationship with your public is really your only currency.

But to circle back, what does that public want? I can only really speak for myself. I'll do so here using my latest death-metal obsession, the long-running Brazilian band Krisiun, as an example. During the past couple weeks, I've worked my way through pretty much their entire discography, and what's been most rewarding about this listening project is charting the band's steady march to what I view as greatness. By this I mean, more specifically, hearing how over the course of 10 albums and around 27 years, they've grown into their own skin, gradually locating what their unique contribution to the rich tradition of death metal might be, and then honing and perfecting that, while — and this part is key — also learning to gaze outward, backward and beyond, as they transcend petty and ultimately arbitrary notions of so-called underground authenticity, enriching, strengthening and clarifying their sound with the goal of making a lasting impact on the larger culture of heavy metal.

Metalheads love to draw lines in the sand, barriers of supposed legitimacy: "Metallica are dead to me after the first four albums," "I only listen to the demos," that sort of thing. (Call it Metal Myopia.) In death metal, the idea behind this logic, as I understand it, is that you want only the purest state of primitivism, the work that stems out of somehow not knowing any better. In Krisiun's case, their first full-length, 1995's Black Force Domain is a good example of this:



I get it, of course. There's something deeply appealing about the way this music smothers the rational mind, storming out of the speakers like some unholy tornado. (I'm a huge fan of Revenge, for example, a band that lives for pure sonic filth, or as I put it here "barf music.")

But in all honesty, there's also something boring about it. Of the 10 Krisiun albums I've listened to recently, Black Force Domain and its 1998 follow-up, Apocalyptic Revelation, were the only ones that felt like a chore to sit through. These records felt like onslaughts to be endured rather than music to be enjoyed. And again, believe me, I get it, the idea that metal is, on some deep level, masochistic. But at a certain point, I tend to want music to go somewhere, to reveal a sense of form, a reason for being. (Not too surprising that the die-hards don't seem to agree; poke around the message boards and you'll find plenty of "It's all downhill after Black Force Domain" proclamations regarding Krisiun's body of work.)

After Apocalyptic Revelation, the band got down to the sometimes controversial business (in death metal, at least) of evolving. On 2000's Conquerors of Armageddon, the feral energy of the early stuff is still there, but the music is starting to take some kind of shape, make some kind of sense. The rabid energy is still there, but you can tell here that the band — made up of brothers Alex Camargo on bass and vocals, guitarist Moyses Kolesne and drummer Max Kolesne — is starting to pay attention to dynamics, to structure, to precision, to the craft of their musical violence.

Ageless Venomous, from '01, goes even further in this direction. It's also an album that sums up a lot of the issues — the word "problems" might be more apt, but I'm being diplomatic — with death metal production from, say, the mid-to-late '90s through the early 2000s. (Death-metal production problems still persist, of course, but what I like to call the Pro Tools Nightmare, that insanely artificial-sounding approach illustrated by recent Immolation and, especially, Suffocation albums, didn't really seem to come into full flower until the 2010s.) Fascinatingly, this band that once wholeheartedly embraced a primitivist sonic dust cloud decided here that they were ready to be fully and completely heard. (Max Kolesne on Ageless Venemous: "It sounds clearer, it shows how precise we can play, there is no blurry parts, everything is there, and that's exactly what we were trying to get.") The album's sound is almost shockingly dry: All sense of sonic space is absent, leaving a weirdly neutered sound that I've actually come to enjoy on multiple listens, largely because of how alien and unconventional it is. The sound only serves to highlight the aesthetic risks the band was taking at this time; see the album's pair of instrumentals: the near-six-minute death-prog workout "Serpents Specters" and dizzying 90-second acoustic track "Diableros," which sounds something like John McLaughlin's Shakti meets Rodrigo y Gabriela.

The band's next album, 2003's Works of Carnage, is, to me, a clear demarcation point in their discography, and the point at which Krisiun really became themselves, so to speak. On songs like "Murderer" and "Wolfen Tyranny," you can hear them embracing this sort viciously precise staccato riffing style that would become one hallmark of their mature style.



As opposed to the undifferentiated, everything-in-the-red approach of the early work, here the band is expertly controlling the interplay of stabbing attack and cold silence. A song like this almost strikes me as the death-metal equivalent of Helmet, in the sense that the sonic blank spaces the band builds in only make the violence of the riffs themselves that much more pronounced. (Venerable metal writer, and my former Invisible Oranges editor, Cosmo Lee was all over this principle in his beautifully written Pitchfork review of Krisiun's 2008 LP, Southern Storm, as solid a summation of the band's appeal as you'll read: "Now their signature is precise machine-gun riffs punctuated by short pauses," he writes. He's also dead-on re: Max's parts sounding like "drum rudiments on steroids." It's noteworthy that Cosmo was all over the online metal beat — and paying close attention to worthy yet wholly unfashionable bands such as Krisiun, to boot — well before the current metal blogosphere took shape.)

You can hear how by this time, the band has essentially thrown out the stock death-metal playbook — the blastbeat is still there, but it's been obsessively chiseled, manipulated, honed. Instead of just surrendering to primal, blasphemous energy, the Krisiun of 2003 is making choices. They're making their music work for them rather than the other way around, and in the process taking steps toward becoming a band that's busy carving out a distinctive and substantial legacy, rather than one that embodies some fetishized idea of primitivism. (Reflecting more on Metal Myopia, I think it's a mindset that values underground cachet at the expense of actual, honest-to-God greatness; witness the common overuse of words like "legendary" in reference to bands who broke up before they even so much as recorded an album, went on tour or, you know, made music worth listening to.)

The upswing continues on the next three Krisiun releases: 2004's Bloodshed (an EP's worth of new songs plus a handful of tracks from the band's 1993 EP Unmerciful Order), 2006's AssassiNation and 2008's Southern Storm. I'm still getting to know these records, but they've nevertheless become instant death-metal core canon for me. Especially by the time of Southern Storm, the band just sounds so in control of its volatile materials, weaving the furious blasting that lies at the heart of its sound into gripping, epic songs. Here's Krisiun playing the opening track of that record, "Slaying Steel," on a Brazilian TV show in 2015 (I highly recommend checking out both full episodes of this show Estúdio Showlivre that the band has appeared on, from 2013 and 2015; incredible to see full-length death-metal performances being documented in-studio like this):



Krisiun may have reached their intensity threshold on Southern Storm, but they still had plenty of growing to do. It's tough for me to pick a favorite record of theirs, but if pressed, I'd go with their next LP, 2011's The Great Execution — a frankly stunning album and one that makes me wonder where the hell my head was at that year when I could have been savoring this upon its release. (I certainly knew of Krisiun and had heard bits and pieces of their work over the years, but this recent listening jag represents my first real dive into their catalog.)

To my ears, this is the album where Krisiun really graduated into the realm of the death-metal elite, populated by some of their key influences such as Morbid Angel and Deicide. Before, they were masters of speed, intensity, tightness. Here, they focus more on dynamics and variety — without losing an ounce of their patented ferocity — and the results are magical, one of those death-metal albums where the subgenre tag seems entirely superfluous. Think of a record like Morbid Angel's Domination or Death's Symbolic, albums that bear obvious "extreme" trappings but that present their ideas in such clear, accessible fashion that any metalhead with open ears can easily hear the brilliance on display.


Songs like "Blood of Lions" and "The Extremist" feature blast sections as fierce as the ones on unremitting speedfests like Conquerors of Armageddon, but here they're framed by tasteful set-ups and ass-kicking breakdowns, and topped with catchy-as-fuck choruses. You can hear Krisiun reveling in the fist-pumping power of metal that really and truly rocks. Songs like "Descending Abomination" place half-time riffs front and center, and the results recall the best of Morbid Angel's slower moments circa Domination, or the groovier bits of Sepultura's Chaos A.D — like The Great Execution, albums that marry the fury of the underground with the crowd-savvy accessibility of more mainstream acts. (The fact that Execution is the best-produced album of Krisiun's career to date — big ups to Andy Classen — doesn't hurt one bit.)

As you can see from this 2004 Moyses Kolesne quote — emphasis mine — from the Works of Carnage period, the band had been thinking along these lines for a while:

You gain maturity after touring a lot. We've learned so much. We play so much better now. We've played for such huge crowds. We've seen how people react; we've seen how the dynamics of the groove works. We've learned to work more into the groove, into the dynamics of the music itself. We used to only go for the fast wild stuff all the time. Works of Carnage is easier to understand, its easier to get into. I think the other albums were a lot of chaos. We're still chaotic but there's more of a groove and we tried to achieve a heavier production. It's really straightforward, not so many riffs. The musical structure is simpler. I don't know how to describe this. I just know that we've grown up a lot.
More on that theme from Moyses in 2012, following the release of The Great Execution:

When you’re young, you just want to go really extreme, y’know? You don’t really care about your roots; you just want to play as aggressive and fast as possible, because that’s the driving feeling you have inside. But once you start getting older, you feel that if you just keep doing it the same, things can get a bit boring. So instead of just taking influences from the trends in music nowadays, we decided to look to the past, to stuff we grew up with, like the old Maiden, old Black Sabbath, old Metallica, old Sepultura stuff, and put it in our music. It came out really satisfying, I think.

This kind of thinking — in fact, the act of thinking at all — these ideas of progression, development, refinement, audience-consciousness, communion with your musical predecessors, etc., are anathema to the rhetoric of the underground, to the Metal Myopic concept of remaining "true," i.e., stunted and essentially amateurish, at all costs. This exchange, from a 2014 Alex Camargo interview with MetalUnderground.com, is telling in that regard:

MU.com: …when someone hears the term “death metal,” they tend to think of one thing. So the challenge is to turn death metal into something bigger than that one thing.
You got it, man. If you make it your career… I mean, we’re here forever. I’ve got nowhere to go! [Laughs] We have to try to expand it, make it bigger, no matter if people give a shit or not. But we have to try. If people like it, that’s killer. Death metal isn’t as popular as melodic heavy metal, so it definitely is a challenge to stick around while playing fast and hard. We do it because we love it; otherwise we’d sell out or just stop doing what we’re doing. We wanna keep doing it, man. We wanna keep having a good time, keep feeling good. That’s what it’s about; as long as we’re motivated to do it, we’re good to go.
There you have it. The progression is about feeding the music, helping it grow and, God forbid, reach new ears. These guys are lifers — professionals, moreover — and unlike the many extreme-metal musicians for whom music is not a full-time gig — including members of relatively big-name bands like Immolation and Suffocation — they don't have the luxury of being content with the status of back-patch/message-board legends. Krisiun will likely never be as big as an Iron Maiden, a Mastodon or even a Cannibal Corpse, but that doesn't mean they're going to build some kind of aesthetic ceiling into the music itself. The Great Execution is the sound of a band saying, "We can retain everything we were before and be so much more at the same time."

Krisiun set an exceedingly high bar there, one that, to my ears, they didn't quite meet on their most recent LP, 2015's Forged in Fury. My current impression of this one is that it's a very good album that lacks the breathtaking command and confidence of The Great Execution. You can hear the band trying out still more new ideas — Forged is definitely the proggiest Krisiun album to date, in the sense of unexpected time signatures, varied dynamics and intricate arrangements — but while on Execution, their fresher elements sounded seamlessly integrated with their old, unrepentantly extreme ethos, on Forged, a bit of awkwardness creeps in, especially when it comes to Camargo's vocal delivery. On earlier albums, he had always sounded rivetingly intense and wholly unfazed; here, there are times when he sounds like he's struggling to fit his trademark gruff roars over the songs' rhythmically thorny arrangements. Forged isn't a bad record by any means — great riffs still abound, for one thing — but it's one that strikes me as more of a transitional statement; accordingly, I have high hopes for whatever Krisiun does next.

It's likely that the message-board police won't be listening either way. I found this section from the 2012 Moyses interview to be an extremely apt, wryly funny illustration of the "plight" of a band like Krisiun — one that at this point in their career is neither a critical darling (probably because their work exists completely apart from the style of death metal that's currently in vogue, one that privileges arty, in some cases pointlessly or inconsequentially so, weirdness over intelligible, effective songcraft and traditional — or to put it another way, Wacken-friendly — heavy-metal values) or a favorite of the wearisomely orthodox underground-til'-death die-hards.

A couple people have said, “What, are you guys wimping out, or something?” And “The record’s not a hundred percent fast,” and shit like that. Kids, man. They need to bitch about anything. And some critics back in time have said, “Oh, Krisiun’s so boring, they just play the same shit,” and we put the new record out and some say, “Now I can listen to them.” So nobody has the same opinion, but we’re gonna feed some hungry kids that like extreme metal, like me when I was a kid. I just liked blasting stuff back then. I mean, I always liked all kinds of metal, but I REALLY liked the blasting shit. So I know there are kids out there that like that stuff, and we’re there for them. And if a critic just listens to “soft” metal, sure, he ain’t gonna have any clue about us. We play for us, for metal – not for critics. So if you like the music, you like it, and if you don’t, you don’t, but you don’t need to be out there spreading bad news about bands.
The funny thing is that the Metal Myopic "kids" he's referring to are really, at this point, often just tediously close-minded adults. But the point is well-taken. The metal scene is at once an oasis of support and positivity and passionate engagement and a cesspool of stunted, dismissive thinking. To any clear-eyed, open-eared observer, a band like Krisiun is as "true" as they come: three musicians deeply invested in underground values (that adolescent part of one's self that "REALLY liked the blasting shit") but also thoughtful enough to leave room for growth, for progression, for the no-shortcuts-allowed cultivation of a long-term aesthetic arc, the kind that marks the careers of all the true, deserving legends — the Metallicas, the Maidens, the Mastodons.

Krisiun is a band that's daring to aim for greatness, for a spot in the pantheon, not in that lower tier of cult favorites but in the realms of the etched-in-the-stars elite (as Moyses puts it, "...whatever comes or doesn't come for us, the music stays here forever"). Following high points like Southern Storm and The Great Execution, they're still on the upward ascent, and you can bet they'll be climbing as long as they can.

/////

*Another awesome artifact from Brazilian TV: a near hour-long 2015 sitdown with all three brothers in which they tell the complete story of the band.

*Alex's perspective on Morbid Angel's Illud Divinum Insanus, an album that was of course burned in effigy by the message-board police (and, let's be fair, most everyone else) upon its release, is refreshing and apt, given M.A.'s status as a band that's long been subjected to "They're dead to me after X album" treatment by the underground peanut gallery: "It took me some time to get it and understand the point, but I got it, man."

*Max on the awesome drum-centric "video podcast" drumtalk.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Heavy metal reckoning

Update [6/30/17]: I also participated in a podcast discussion of the RS metal list, with my colleagues Kory Grow, Brian Hiatt and Brittany Spanos. We were joined by none other than Rob Halford of Judas Priest!

Here, as published Wednesday on RollingStone.com, is a list of the 100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time. My friend/colleague Kory Grow and myself spearheaded the project, and we were joined by a squad of enormously talented writers, too numerous to shout out here. As I stated in this follow-up interview with Metal Insider, Kory's expertise really drove the project, though everyone involved was essential.

I have long identified as a metalhead, though working on this list put me in my place a bit. The truth is that, despite having spent the past 25 years or so immersed in metal and related styles, there's just so much I haven't heard or really spent good time with, including many of the stone-cold classics and cult favorites found throughout this list. Chalk that up to my diverse musical interests, I guess — I've never claimed to be a completist, only a passionate and dedicated listener who makes a habit of following his nose.

Anyway, I'll just say that I feel proud to have participated in this project, both behind-the-scenes and as a writer, and I hope that the final product at least proves to be an interesting — if, like any by-nature-subjective list, somewhat maddening — read.

Many of my favorite metal records did thankfully end up on this list – among them Morbid Angel's Covenant, probably my stone-cold No. 1 if I had to pick; five incredible Metallica records (my personal top picks being Justice and, of course, Master); six by the mighty Black Sabbath (Sabotage is probably my truest jam among them); Dio's towering Holy Diver; Slayer's impeccable Reign/South/Seasons run; Pantera's '92/'94 knockout combo; Danzig's flawless self-titled debut (I'm more of a III guy, but all that early-period stuff is essential); Tool's engrossing Ænima (though Lateralus is probably my favorite by them); Rage Against the Machine's shattering debut; and outliers like Helmet's Meantime, Eyehategod's Take as Needed for Pain, Melvins' Bullhead, Type O Negative's Bloody Kisses, Life of Agony's River Runs Red and Death's Human. I've been keeping a running tally of metal albums I love that didn't end up on the RS list for various reasons. Here, in alphabetical order, are some of the ones that are most dear to me, with links to coverage where appropriate:

Autopsy: Mental Funeral

Axis of Advance: Obey [J. Read post]


Behold... the Arctopus: Skullgrid, Horrorscension 

Black Sabbath: beyond the ones on the list – Mob Rules, Born Again, Headless Cross, Dehumanizer, The Devil You Know (the latter credited to Heaven and Hell), 13

Bolt Thrower: every LP from The IVth Crusade through Those Once Loyal

Cannibal Corpse: The Bleeding, every LP from Kill through A Skeletal Domain

Carcass: Necroticism — Descanting the Insalubrious, Surgical Steel

Christian Mistress: Possession [mentioned in 2012 year-end round-up]

Clutch: Passive Restraints (I love many Clutch releases, but this might be the only one I'd actually feel comfortable pegging as metal)

Confessor: Condemned [Steve Shelton round-up post, Modern Drummer article]

Coroner: Punishment for Decadence, No More Color, Mental Vortex, Grin

Crowbar: basically every LP from 1993's Crowbar through The Serpent Only Lies, with special mention of the self-titled, Odd Fellows Rest and Sonic Excess in Its Purest Form

Cynic: Focus, Traced in Air

Danzig: II: Lucifuge, III: How the Gods Kill, 4p, plus Deth Red Sabaoth [Samhain live review and Glenn Danzig–obsession overview]

Death: Individual Thought Patterns, Symbolic, The Sound of Perseverance

Defeated Sanity: Passages Into Deformity

Deicide: Legion, Once Upon the Cross

Dismember: full catalog, with special mention of Like an Ever-Flowing Stream and Massive Killing Capacity 

Dysrhythmia: Test of Submission

Entombed: Wolverine Blues, Uprising, Morning Star [some discussion here]

Fucking Champs: IV, V

Gorguts: Obscura, From Wisdom to Hate, Colored Sands, Pleiades' Dust

Immolation: full catalog, with special mention of Close to a World Below, Unholy Cult and Majesty and Decay

Incantation: full catalog, with special mention of Onward to Golgotha, Mortal Throne of Nazarene and Vanquish in Vengeance

Iron Maiden: The Book of Souls [mentioned in best-of-2015 round-up]

Keelhaul: II, Subject to Change Without Notice, Keelhaul's Triumphant Return to Obscurity

Khanate: Things Viral, Capture and Release

Krallice: Ygg Huur

Loincloth: Iron Balls of Steel

Mastodon: Remission, Leviathan (which does appear on the list), Once More 'Round the Sun, The Hunter, Emperor of Sand

Meshuggah: The Violent Sleep of Reason

Morbid Angel: full catalog beyond the aforementioned Covenant (yeah, even a handful of songs on Illud Divinum Insanus), with special mention of Altars of Madness, Domination, Entangled in Chaos, Gateways to Annihilation and Heretic

Necronaut: Necronaut

Necrophagist: Epitaph

Obituary: full catalog, with special mention of The End Complete, World Demise, Back From the Dead and Inked in Blood

Pallbearer: Sorrow and Extinction

Pantera: beyond the ones on the list – Cowboys From Hell, Reinventing the Steel

Revenge: Victory.Intolerance.Mastery; Behold.Total.Rejection [J. Read post]


Sepultura: Arise, Chaos A.D. (on the list)

Sorcery: Arrival at Six

Suffocation: full catalog, with special mention of Effigy of the Forgotten, Pierced From Within, Blood Oath and Pinnacle of Bedlam

Voivod: Killing Technology, Dimension Hatröss (on the list), Nothingface, Angel Rat, The Outer Limits, Target Earth (mentioned in 2013 round-up), Post-Society

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

The wandering healer: Peter Brötzmann live with Heather Leigh

Peter Brötzmann and Heather Leigh at Issue Project Room / June 7, 2017


















It seems a little strange to say it, given the man's reputation and overall aesthetic, but what I'm sitting here thinking about now — marveling at, really — less than hour after the end of a Peter Brötzmann performance at Issue Project Room, is the man's generosity. In demeanor, he gives nothing: a trim, aloof man with an almost let's-get-this-over-with bearing. But in sound, he gives all.

Tonight's concert was a duo with Heather Leigh, a pedal-steel player and Brötzmann's partner on recent albums such as 2015's Ears Are Filled With Wonder and the newly released Sex Tape. I've seen Brötzmann many times; this might have been the first occasion where a drummer wasn't present. [Note, 6/8/17: Not quite true. I do remember catching an astonishing Brötzmann / William Parker duo gig at Tonic, which this list tells me was in April 2001.] I came in wondering if the music would somehow feel spare, lacking. Fortunately, the moment took over and all concerns dissipated — the musicians quickly got to work and held a concept aloft for roughly an hour.

The music, thanks in part to Leigh's gorgeously enveloping sound, sometimes chiming and delicate, other times overdriven, menacing and bubbling over with dark, ashy timbres, had a quality of hovering, as though a great craft were slowly taking off from the stage and hanging just above the ground. If Leigh provided the music's subtle thrust, Brötzmann was the exhaust, the residue of its liftoff, the dirt it displaced, the shards of ice that danced around it. The combination of the two was at times like hearing a man roaring into a waterfall: both sounds deafening but the saxophone (and later clarinet and tarogato) seeming somewhat buried within the vibrating din of the amplified strings. But there was an unperturbed quality to Brötzmann's phrases, a peace within the violence — though he roared, he stood still and did not visibly exert. His sound was as powerful as I've ever heard it — as gut-stabbingly true and poignant, as redolent of earth and sweat — but there seemed to be a new quality of balance taking hold, a resignation at once to press on through an imposing sound field that sometimes drowned him out and to surrender to its mass.

Not to say that Leigh seemed oblivious in the slightest. There was actually an extreme sensitivity at work, a sense of the players swapping foreground and background roles. As the music unfolded and Brötzmann traded the manly might of the tenor for the wobbly, sometimes fragile-sounding clarinet and haunting, reedy tarogato, Leigh would always recede at just the right moment to open a space for her partner, inviting Brötzmann to metaphorically lean in close, blessing the audience with a taste of the milder end of his gifts, his private-sounding murmurs, like a man telling himself a story beside a hearth. And then worrying a phrase, shaking his mouth back and forth over the mouthpiece to sort of wobble the sound, building back up into a growl or a gnash.

Brötzmann sets can sometimes feel like pure, bullheaded exertion, but this one had a quality of deep reflection. It was like the two were singing one hour-long dirge or elegy — an almost raga-like form, now that I think about it — with many peaks and valleys. There was a sense of bearing down on a single idea, sweating through the effort of concentration and focus. And Brötzmann, standing so still but producing such a massive, human noise and depth of expression. His is a sonic presence on the order of Milford Graves where, yeah, sure, you can listen to it all kinds of ways, in whatever medium you choose, but unless you're in the room with it, you aren't really hearing it. Words like "cry" or "shriek" seem to bounce off its true essence like rubber bullets off iron; what's there in the sound is nothing you can say succinctly. It's something you take in slowly, a warm, harsh, even caustic sort of mist; a blinding yet restorative light that feels truer and truer as both the man making it ages and the world around him becomes faster, more distracted/distractable, more violent and insane.

There was a brief encore, with Brötzmann playing celebratory figures, what seemed to me an explicit evocation of one of his (and us New Yorkers') patron saints, Albert Ayler. Truth had already long since marched in, had seeped into every corner of Issue's imposing, cavernous space, but during this brief coda, he graciously made his ancestral connection clear, an homage and a well-wishing. Ayler's prophet days were indelible but so brief. Peter Brötzmann by contrast has led a long and rich life. In his old age, he's something akin to a wandering healer, coming to town and, simply, without ceremony, filling each space he visits with a kind of raw grace, an unceremonious yet transcendent blast from the guts. Framed with Leigh's contributions, I heard that sound tonight — that old friend to my ears and spirit — in a new way. Wiser, almost, possibly more benevolent, but with as much fight as ever. Make no mistake, Peter Brötzmann is at a rare peak, and when he's gone, there will not be another like him.

/////

*I'm proud of this lengthy 2011 Brötzmann Q&A. Whatever his manner might indicate, the man is a joy to converse with.

*And I thank Brötzmann for his vital and generous contributions to my Interstellar Space piece earlier this year.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

My classic rock: Goodbye, Chris Cornell


This song was already too much, but with today's news it feels even more so. How bittersweet to find, via my colleague Alexis Sottile's remarkable new interview with Cameron Crowe, that it was inspired by an inside joke of sorts, the mythology of Singles' hapless protagonist and Citizen Dick leader Cliff Poncier.

Chris Cornell was very obviously a musical titan. An almost scarily mighty wielder-of-voice, a true rock god in an era where that concept was under attack. And a master songwriter. Superunknown is probably my favorite Soundgarden moment, with "Fell on Black Days," "The Day I Tried to Live" and all the rest. They were a gloriously loud, weird, over-the-top band, in many ways the antithesis of the sardonic reluctance that Cobain and Co. embodied. There was nothing apologetic or shrinking about Soundgarden. Cornell wailed, literally, and the band did the same. They were prog and punk and heavy metal and pop. (I can think of few hit singles that check all those boxes the way "Outshined" does.) Maximal and insane and fun, in their own brutish, caustic way.

I'm not a Cornell completist. Beyond "Seasons," I don't know the solo material well — though this a.m., I had a great time combing through his sizable backlog of covers, which play like a roadmap of his musical DNA, from Zeppelin to Whitney Houston — and as much as I adore both Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine, I can't say I really warmed to Audioslave beyond their titanic introductory single "Cochise." (I should also add that while I'm often the guy who can be found going to the mat for allegedly indefensible releases, judging by what I've heard of Scream, Cornell's infamous Timbaland collaboration, the album seems to generally deserve the scorn that's been heaped upon it.) But the Soundgarden back catalog is absolutely a part of my musical pantheon — like Cornell himself, now, those records are immortal.

It seems to me that the rock music of my youth is now generally appraised in a mocking way: all that '90s flannel and angst is often condescended to retroactively in much the same way the output and milieu of the '80s "hair" bands are. (And let's not even get started on a band like Stone Temple Pilots, a phenomenally talented group that never seemed to transcend punchline status in the eyes of the tastemakers, whose idea of taste somehow always seems so abhorrent and antithetical to my own passions and interests, especially as far as rock music is concerned.) But make no mistake: This rock was classic. Have you listened, really listened, to a song like "Would?" lately, or one like "State of Love and Trust" — I guess it's no coincidence that my go-to examples for many of these bands all appear on the Singles soundtrack, which was such a treasured object to me at a young age, maybe even my favorite multi-artist compilation of all time — or "Limo Wreck"? This was intensely high-stakes music, virtuosically composed and performed. Music that, as much as I love contemporary quasi-mainstream rock bands from Queens of the Stone Age to the Mars Volta to Mastodon, attains a grandeur and sturdiness and scope that really hasn't been heard in this medium since.

All I can say is, I'm glad I lived through it, and I'm sad to hear that Chris Cornell could not enjoy the kind of late-career contendedness that, say, his newly Rock and Roll Hall of Fame–inducted peers in Pearl Jam seem to be rightfully basking in. Whatever he was going through, I think it's fair to say he deserved better.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Sweden, pt. 2: Artisanal death metal, reverent neo–hard rock and everything in between

"You can laugh at me but don't you ever make jokes about heavy metal. It's my religion." —Peter Stjärnvind

So this Swedish-death-metal obsession is lasting a little longer than I thought it would, which is all good by me. Both via the Daniel Ekeroth book discussed in that prior post, and by charting my own path through this vast universe, I'm waking up to tons of records I'd either overlooked or never knew existed. And as with Metallica, Obituary and many others, I'm discovering that what's speaking to me most is the later, often "non-canonical" work by many of the artists in question.

But there's something a little different going on here, a trend that's been slowly revealing itself as I follow the careers of different bands and musicians that catch my ear. It's not simply legacy bands sticking around and doing what they do, year after year, decade after decade. It's also the formation of an ethos, an approach, a way of thinking about not just metal but music — and art — in general.

Interestingly three of the driving forces behind this movement — and I use this term to signify not a concrete, deliberate or even conscious alliance but more a trend that I've noticed — are drummers turned guitarists, bandleaders, songwriters, musical prime movers. They are Fred Estby, Nicke Andersson and Peter Stjärnvind.

These musicians all started out drumming in first-wave extreme metal bands in Sweden: Estby in Dismember, Andersson in Entombed and Stjärnvind in Unanimated and, later, Merciless. Later, sometimes 20 years or more into their careers, they transitioned into a different, in a sense broader role within the scene. Partly due to what I've read — see Stjärnvind's quote at the top of this entry — but more importantly due to what I've heard, I've come to see each of these men as a sort of spiritual guardian of not just the sound of metal (from "death" to plain old "heavy"), in Sweden and beyond, but also the meaning of it, the strange subliminal force that keeps some of us, musicians and fans alike, coming back to this music time and time again, often throughout the course of a lifetime.

I see this trio, and their comrades and collaborators such as Ulf "Uffe" Cederlund, Matti Kärki, Richard Cabeza, David Blomkvist and others, not just as a death-metal old guard, but as a squad of determined preservationists, devoted to keeping alive a sort of musical folk tradition that they helped to found, and demonstrating through musical means how that tradition isn't now, and never really was, separate from the traditions that fed it, be they thrash metal, heavy metal or good, old rock and roll. (See also: Darkthrone's Fenriz.)

This is an in-progress list of records I've been obsessing over in this regard:

Necronaut, s/t (2010)
Death Breath, Let It Stink (2007)
Death Breath, Stinking Up the Night (2006)
Murder Squad, Unsane, Insane and Mentally Deranged (2001)
Murder Squad, Ravenous, Murderous (2004)

And tangentially:

The Dagger, s/t (2014)
Black Trip, Shadowline (2015)
Imperial State Electric, All Through the Night (2016)

I list the Necronaut album first here for a few reasons. One, I think it's an absolutely stunning album that I didn't hear thing about when it came out — which could be because it's a project spearheaded by Fred Estby, and I hadn't really woken up to the brilliance of Dismember at that time — and two, because maybe more than any other record on this little listening list I've made, it makes explicit those connections I was referring to above. This album is, honestly, one of the most sheerly enjoyable, and subtly radical metal records I've ever heard. What it is, is a kind of genre-overview suite, a chronicle of, as Stjärnvind puts it, metal as religion, which ignores ultimately pointless subgenre distinctions in favor of an overarching principle, not just a sound but a feeling.

So you have a gurgling, rollicking death-metal track like "Infecting Madness" (11:44) — featuring guest vocals by Autopsy's Chris Reifert, a key influence on, and a sort of patron saint of, the Swedish scene I'm chronicling in this post — following a dark, triumphant, invisible-orange-clutching heavy-metal track like "Soulside Serpents" (7:20):



(Quick note here re: Necronaut: Sadly, as far as I can tell, this extraordinary album isn't currently available for any kind of legal purchase or streaming, at least in the U.S.)

What unifies these aesthetics is not just Estby's writing and playing — much like in Dave Grohl's Probot project, Estby conceived and performed the majority of this material himself, bringing in guest vocalists to complete the tracks — but a certain kind of spirit, a way of thinking about metal. This is not simply a rehash of early-'80s heavy-metal glory or early-'90s death-metal raunch; It's a vision of an idealized realm where those styles coexist in perfect harmony, an expression of a strategic and curatorial mindset — though one that sets aside a dry, didactic presentation in favor of one built around sheer fun and enjoyment and abandon and, yes, excellence.

That's really what Necronaut is: a demonstration of how truly excellent metal can be when you strip it back to its fundamental principles: concise, hooky writing; gritty, soulful performances; and perhaps most importantly, a deep allegiance to an organic sound, free from triggered drums, conspicuous Pro Tools (ab)use and other sonic sorcery that's become standard issue in all forms of metal. (I should note that in addition to writing and playing the majority of it, Estby produced Necronaut.) To put it in terms of food — something I'm always happy to do — Necronaut is an exemplary realization of artisanal metal, homegrown, nutritious and delicious.

Estby's next major statement was the Dagger, which also included his longtime Dismember bandmate David Blomqvist. They've since split up, but they released an excellent self-titled album in 2014:



Like a lot of bands playing what I'll call neoclassic hard rock — as we'll see, a common aesthetic destination for first-wave Stockholm death-metal architects — the Dagger can seem at a glance like some sort of '70s cosplay, but beneath the surface, there's nothing but quality and love for the period in question (Thin Lizzy would be my main reference point, but given the lifer ethos of Estby, Blomkvist and Co., I'm sure there are literally thousands of gradually more obscure reference points that are in play here). The band simply — well, not simply; actually in a very subtle and almost delicate way — rocks, and their music is sublime escapism and, yes, entertainment. I had a blast watching a few of their live clips, such as this one, in which you can see bassist Tobias Cristiansson, another ex-Dismember dude, beaming at the crowd as if to say, "Damn, death metal is great, but it's kinda fun to be playing such crowd-pleasing stuff for once," or this one, in which vocalist Jani Kataja enters after an instrumental intro and howls into the mic, "We are the Dagger and we love you all!"

Love would be the key would there. By all appearances, the ex-Dismember dudes didn't exactly find fame and fortune playing this more accessible music, but it's pretty clear that they found deep satisfaction. In terms of the intent behind it, I look at this project and, by extension, Black Trip (Peter Stjärnvind's current hard-rock band, recently renamed V.J.O.D.) and Imperial State Electric (Nicke Andersson's going concern, founded after years spent leading the very successful Hellacopters, and whose latest album, All Through the Night, contains some very nuanced, diverse and sophisticated neo–boogie rock), somewhat in the way I view Neil Peart's '90s Burning for Buddy series. Both in the case of these Swedish death-metal hellions growing up and going full '70s and in that of this former prog-rock maverick growing up and taking some time to explore the big-band music of his youth, there's this sense of mid-career artists having secured their own legacy as a pioneer in a given genre and then turning back to address their sort of ancestral sound, the root of what their own music would eventually become. There would be no death metal without classic hard rock, the same way there would be no prog without jazz, and these various Swedish hard-rock projects feel like offerings at the temple of rock. And more importantly, as I suggested above, acknowledgments that all this — any kind of metal or rock you could name, from anytime in about the last 60 years — is really just one thing.

The beauty of that way of thinking is that in some ways you can sort of toy with history, explore cool, slyly anachronistic hybrids. Like Fred Estby, Nicke Andersson isn't just a drummer, or guitarist, or songwriter, or vocalist, or producer; he's a 360-degree mastermind. It's not just about the sound with him; it's about the spirit. Which is why a band like Death Breath, Andersson's project with fellow current '70s-rock revivalist Robert Pehrsson, for all its willful silliness, reveals itself — when you really take time to steep in it — as one of the smartest and most carefully executed projects in modern death metal:


Yes, Let It Stink (this 2007 EP follows the equally essential 2006 full-length Stinking Up the Night). Yes, "Giving Head to the Dead." This band takes it there, so to speak, in every way, practically challenging you to dismiss them as a joke, but the music is so goddamn powerful, so flawlessly performed (and by that I mean with timeless punk abandon) and so gorgeously rendered (with a production sound that reeks of nicotine, vomit and stale beer) that you realize that, again, this project is an ultimate labor of love — in Andersson's case, a statement from a man who started out as the prime mover in the Stockholm death metal scene (if you trust the aforementioned Swedish Death Metal, Andersson was the true driving force behind scene kings Nihilist/Entombed), became a garage-rock and boogie king with his later projects, and then turned back to death metal to issue a sort of effortless "this is how it's done, people" statement. Death Breath wears its labor lightly — the whole project has the feel of being conceived in a single drunken weekend — but it's actually the result of years, decades even, of love and hard work.

The whole concept here seems to be: "You all fucked up death metal with your Pro Tools and your five-string basses and your triggered drums and your dorky technicality. It's supposed to be about death, you idiots. And it's supposed to sound like and feel like and, yes, reek of pure analog filth." The irony is that no late-'80s/early-'90s death metal or grindcore (including that of Entombed, or that of the mighty Repulsion, whose frontman Scott Carlson is a quasi-member of Death Breath and handles lead vocals on "Giving Head") sounded this incredibly crunchy and warm. Like Necronaut, this is artisanal death metal, lovingly informed by the values of '70s rock, '80s hardcore and many other substyles.

(And along those lines, I should note that these Death Breath releases, the Necronaut album, etc. represent sort of a revisionist incorporation of a warm analog drum sound into the Swedish death-metal tradition, given that most of the original classics in the genre — e.g., Left Hand Path and Like an Ever Flowing Stream — were recorded on Sunlight Studio's electronic drum kit, as Fred Estby discusses here.)

Which brings me to Murder Squad, which features Peter Stjärnvind on drums, along with Entombed's Uffe Cederlund on guitar, ex-Dismember (and ex–many other bands) bassist Richard Cabeza and ex-Dismember frontman (then still a member) Matti Kärki.


Murder Squad's music is the kind that immediately turns my mind to mush, in the best way, unleashing the lizard brain within seconds of me turning it on. This band's two albums — Unsane, Insane and Mentally Deranged and Ravenous, Murderous — are filled with the some of the purest, most raging, riff-centric death-metal filth I've ever heard, rendered in phenomenally full, clear old-school tones. The groove and swagger and monstrous elephantine girth of this music is wondrous and, as in the case of Death Breath, frankly, innovative. The outstanding and groundbreaking Autopsy, whom Murder Squad formed in tribute to (at first, they only played Autopsy covers) — and whose leader, Chris Reifert, another musician who clearly understands the death-metal-to-vintage-rock trajectory, cameos on Ravenous Murderous — never sounded this sharp and massive, and even their excellently recorded post-reunion albums don't quite reach the flawless fidelity levels and raw, seething abandon of these Murder Squad discs.

Everyone's pulling their weight in a band like Murder Squad, but as you can see in this live video, Peter Stjärnvind is simply beasting, uniting the bash and the finesse vectors into a perfect percussive whole. (His cymbal work on these Murder Squad records has frequently brought me to the verge of tears; he is a poet of the ride bell — listen to the pattern he busts out at around the 2:02 mark in the track above.)

I woke up to Stjärnvind's brilliance slowly. He drummed for Entombed for years, appearing as many of their full-lengths as Nicke Andersson did, but especially while reading Swedish Death Metal, I had come to associate that band so fully with Andersson that I viewed that band's later, post-Andersson output, i.e., from 1998's Same Difference on, as somehow non-canonical. Same Difference itself is an odd departure (as this great Decibel post indicates, it's your chance to hear Entombed going for a post-Unsane/AmRep sound, with mixed but often fascinating results — well worth hearing for any serious fan), but the two records after it, Uprising and Morning Star, are very solid efforts that expand on and refine the raucous death-rawk madness of Wolverine Blues and the far less well-known but nearly as good To Ride, Shoot Straight and Speak the Truth. (Note for fans of the latter record: I highly recommend this 1997 gig, from the twilight of Entombed's Nicke years.) As you can see here, the Stjärnvind-powered Entombed were an absolute leveling force circa Morning Star:


(I should note that Andersson is now back in the Entombed camp, having done some gigs last year honoring the band's first two albums with help from Cederlund and fellow core guitarist Alex Hellid. Meanwhile vocalist L.G. Petrov continues on in a project now called Entombed A.D. — here's hoping they can all just get along.)

So my growing Peter Stjärnvind obsession led me to the interview linked at the top of this post, which concerns his recent Black Trip project, in which he plays guitar. I sought out their record Shadowline — recorded, for those keeping score, by none other than Nicke Andersson, who also, incidentally, designed the logo for the Dagger and contributes guest vocals to one track on Necronaut — and I was absolutely riveted within seconds:


The Dagger's self-titled debut is an excellent record, but to my ears, this is on another level. It's a more aggressive and urgent sound, which for me again evokes Thin Lizzy, but Thin Lizzy at their roughest and toughest, as on the Thunder and Lightning album, when they sounded like they were racing against time. All respect to Black Star Riders, the occasionally excellent post–Thin Lizzy band led by the master Scott Gorham, but Shadowline is hands down the most compelling reanimation of that classic sound and vibe I've ever heard, one of those "Jesus Christ, sometimes this even sounds better than the original" sort of retro projects. Listen to this entire record and savor it — to my ears, it's an instant classic. The writing, the performances, the sound, the fucking cover — I honestly can't find a single flaw.

So when Peter Stjärnvind says that heavy metal is religion, he really means it, and clearly Fred Estby and Nicke Andersson feel the same. As the above records show, these men have gone to the mat for this style time and again, harnessing their adolescent drive and wildness to co-create the now-legendary first wave of Swedish death metal, moving forward (or backward) into the glorious, richly textured rock of their youth, then entering a sort of golden middle age in which both of these styles, and anything else they feel like playing, all coexists and commingles in this sort of magical boundless space where, as I consume more and more music along this continuum, learn to feel ever more deeply the Sabbath and the Blue Öyster Cult and the Autopsy and the Entombed and the Chuck Berry and the Sheer Mag and every other glorious rock sound I can get my hands on, all these sounds come to seem like facets of the same primal source. The less I divide these styles in my mind, the more profound they all seem, the more eternal, the more life-affirming. Whatever you want to call it, it's my religion too.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Recklessness and refinement: In praise of Dismember

I've been doing that thing again, that immersion thing that has spawned so many posts on this blog. It's become the way music happens to me, a framework for how I (ideally) engage with this infinite, and infinitely pleasurable, sea of sonic information we look out on every day.

For me, it's pretty simple: You get ahold of a large discography by a given band or artist, and you just run it down. Backwards, forwards, randomly. Take as long as you want. For me, the less "relevant" the band/artist is to the current "conversation," the better. Because of my job, I live daily within the stream of the news firehose; what a pleasure it is — maybe something like the quiet life of an academic, which seems so far removed from what I do, so appealing, in some ways, but also maybe somewhat foreign to my nature — to just get away from all that. It's like taking a weekend trip to the woods. I think what I crave more than anything as a listener-for-pleasure is just peace and quiet.

Often, somewhat ironically, I guess, via loud and aggressive sounds. Metal works so well for the above "run it down" practice. And death metal works particularly well, because you run across these gloriously lengthy, rich discographies, often largely unswayed by trends. Hence the obsessions with Obituary, Bolt Thrower, Immolation, Incantation and the rest. And now, Dismember.

I've developed such affection for this band during the past few weeks that I feel like I've known them my whole life, so to speak, but unlike with Obituary, Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse and a few others, Dismember are a relatively new discovery for me. I first heard their classic 1991 debut, Like an Everflowing Stream, a few years back. I loved it but didn't go deeper, and it appears that many have similarly short-changed this truly phenomenal band. It's a trend that often frustrates me in the discourse that surrounds metal — i.e., the forsaking of works, usually later ones, that fall outside the acknowledged canon. You see so many bands where 10, 20, 30 years of work gets reduced to a single iconic record that came out during the glory years of said band's subgenre. First-four-albums Metallica worship (and, conversely, instant dismissal of their more recent output) would be the most visible example here, but this kind of thinking extends vastly outward. You don't run into many folks who want to sit around and talk about why A Skeletal Domain, in its own way, rules just as much as The Bleeding, or why Back From the Dead is actually a more enjoyable record in many ways than Cause of Death. (At work, I've become known as Late Album Hank, a mocking tribute to my affection for such supposedly past-their-prime records.)

But the question for me is, if a band you love keeps making records and doesn't totally jump the shark à la Morbid on Illud Divinum Insanus (being the Morbid die-hard that I am, I have even found a few things to love in that deeply flawed, probably justly vilified album), why wouldn't you want to relish every last one?

I digress. What I mean to say, really, is that Dismember's eight-album run, from Everflowing Stream through 2008's self-titled — and, to date, final — LP is a frankly shocking achievement of consistency and quality. Let's compare their body of work to that of Bolt Thrower, the subject of my last immersion-listening program. Like most metal bands, "extreme" or otherwise, BT took a few albums to really fine-tune and get down to the business that would ultimately prove to be their calling card. Again, I know the metal community at large wants to brand an album like War Master an untouchable classic, but to me, it's just a warm-up for the truly mature Bolt Thrower that emerges on The IVth Crusade, or even …For Victory, and from that point on, we only get a precious three albums before the band's breakup.

Dismember, on the other hand, emerged with an essentially perfect statement. Not just a first album, but a first song on that first album, that sums up everything they do well. If you're a more casual listener than me, this might be all the Dismember you need, and if so, well get ready to fucking rock:



I'm only about a quarter of the way into Daniel Ekeroth's essential Swedish Death Metal tome, so I don't have all the deep background on that country's storied scene that I'd like to in order to truly reckon with Dismember's place in the lineage. But one fact that was pretty much obvious to me before I dove in to this catalog was that Entombed tend to overshadow all of Swedish death metal, and the common notion is that everyone else's records are a sort of consolation prize when compared to theirs.

All respect to Entombed. They're an outstanding, justly legendary band. But their discography is not the monolithic monster that Dismember's is. I've been working my way through their records recently too, in a less feverish and systematic way, and it's a bit of a rockier path. You have these two early masterpieces, Left Hand Path and Clandestine, which, as fully realized as they are, still sound formative to me, and then you have this whole other thing on Wolverine Blues, a phenomenally heavy, enjoyable record that sends the band in a very different direction that, honestly, I greatly prefer. (In the end, as much as I love underground and "extreme" music, I'm often after the more polished, pro-sounding statement from a given band, hence my love of major-label post-hardcore.) I'm still working my way through, but from there, things get weird: Labels change, key members start dropping out, etc. I will have to report back to you, but I already felt my interest waning ever so slightly when checking out the fourth, relatively obscure Entombed record, 1997's DCLXVI: To Ride, Shoot Straight and Speak the Truth, the last one to date to include all the key players from Left Hand Path.

Anyway, all I mean to say is that Dismember tend to get this sort of second-place treatment (or worse) when the topic of Swedish death metal is discussed. (And I ought to clarify here that I'm talking about the so-called Stockholm / Sunlight Studio sound, not the Gothenburg "melodic death metal" one, as exemplified by At the Gates et al.) But if you really lay out the evidence, regardless of who came first (and we're talking about a matter of roughly a year here between the releases of Left Hand Path and Everflowing Stream), Dismember are the band that really lived and breathed what I hear as the essence of this music for way longer. Their consistency, both in terms of aesthetic and quality level, is honestly insane.

Compare "Override of the Overture" above to this, from the self-titled album, which came out 17 years later:



Some things have changed, of course. Drummer Fred Estby, one of the three true core members of Dismember who where there from the Everflowing Stream period on (the others being guitarist David Blomqvist and frontman Matti Kärki), left before this final album. His indefatigable, punishing-yet-groove-drenched, reckless-yet-relaxed style is so absolutely essential to the band's classic sound that I was at first inclined to "asterisk" Dismember slightly. But after spending some good time with it, I realized it was just as essential as all the others. Yes, Dismember belong to the No Bad Albums Club, a distinction I'm not yet prepared to bestow on Entombed.

"The Hills Have Eyes" may not have every Dismember hallmark, may not sum up their strengths as insanely well as "Override of the Overture." But what gets me is how intact the spirit of what they do remains here. Dismember's core principle is this kind of glorious turbulence, a primal and punky heave, wherein you feel constantly threshed and swept along by the sharpness and momentum of the riffs. The music just moves, and moves you, in such a thrilling way. I've rarely encountered metal that's so ruthlessly devoted to the art of making you bang your fucking head. Hearing this music over and over, I'm more and more bummed I never got to see this band live. (I'm praying that, as Estby said in a 2016 interview, they might get back together in the future for more shows.) I can only imagine the monster rush that this stuff would provide in person.

And of course there's that absolutely disgusting guitar tone, the classic Stockholm hallmark — the Swedish Chainsaw — again largely associated with Entombed, or more specifically Nihilist, that band's prior incarnation, and even more specifically, that band's late guitarist Leif "Leffe" Cuzner, who didn't graduate to Entombed along with his comrades. Listening to so much Dismember, I have to ask: Did any band revel in the crunch and filth that the Boss HM-2 pedal spewed forth to a greater degree than Dismember?


That sensation of thin, serrated nastiness. That unrepentantly gross, brittle, hacking texture that has become world-famous to the point that it practically signifies an entire genre. Has it ever been so extensively and skillfully and, I would argue, profoundly applied as in the work of Dismember? This band made a nasty sound and a breakneck, punk-indebted feel into something like a religion, driving further and further into the center of that holy combination — wherein each stop-time clench and righteously unspooling riff seems to send your teeth rattling around in your skull and your eyes rolling back in your head — and never wavering from the attack mission.



And yet there's also this element of grand refinement. Something Bolt Thrower brings in as well, and that obviously Carcass incorporated as well as anybody ever has. That classic British sound of elegy and victory and valor and, well, honestly, fucking Iron Maiden. I've gotten wind of a sort of controversial aspect of Dismember's Massive Killing Capacity album, and even the band itself seems iffy on it. ("On Indecent and Massive Killing Capacity we tried different approaches to making the music, but it didn't really work out," Kärki said in 2000.) But I frankly adore this side of the band — I think albums like MKC do an incredible job of marrying that awesomely raw quality you hear on a track like "The Hills Have Eyes" with the grandeur of classic, pre-"extreme" metal. (Check out the gorgeous and entirely convincing melodic instrumental "Nenia," Dismember's own "Orion.")

A lot of that has to do with Kärki. Like John Tardy or Karl Willetts or Martin Van Drunen or any of these truly great death-metal vocalists, his is a shamanic presence, one that takes a rough instrument and makes it feel so true and focused and essential and spiritually potent. Even on a track like "Collection by Blood," where he sounds a little out of his element in terms of the intensely melodic quality of the music around him, Kärki brings this sense of total engagement and authority. The act of bellowing and growling over loud metal music is a fundamentally weird one — though I guess when you get down to it, maybe it's less weird than refined singing, which requires a willful refinement of the natural sound an uncivilized human animal makes when it opens its mouth — but a frontman like Kärki just seems so immersed and so at home in the practice. His is the bellow, the ever-Hulking-out voice of arrrrrggggghh that powered every single Dismember full-length. (Until I really spent time with Dismember, I never quite understood how indebted fellow Swedes Sorcery were to them, and specifically to the combo of Blomkvist's merciless riffs and Kärki's booming roar.)

The recklessness and the refinement, the snarls and the soaring melody. The wrath and sickness of hardcore and the pride and drama of the NWOBHM bands. Over eight incredible albums, Dismember somehow managed to build these bridges and keep all the foundations sturdy, combining the rawness of drunk teenagers spilling vomit into the street after, or during, Friday night rehearsal (a spirit clearly gleaned from the members' Autopsy obsession; I love Kärki's characterization of that band's Chris Reifert as the "Midas of death metal"; and on a similar note Blomkvist's matter-of-fact this-ain't-rocket-science viewpoint: "We try not to be in the studio too long [laughs]. I mean, we play death metal.") with an epic, theatrical sweep that suggests an ancient amphitheater as much as a sweaty club.

I feel so goddamned enriched and energized by this catalog. If any of the above resonates and you haven't taken the full plunge, by all means, get to it. No Bad Albums!

Here are a bunch of other awesome Dismember tracks (sadly sans several gems from 2006's The God That Never Was, the band's final album to date with Fred Estby, which isn't on Spotify):