Thursday, June 22, 2017

Heavy metal reckoning

Here, as published Wednesday on, 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:

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 & Hell), 13

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

Deicide: Legion, Once Upon the Cross

Dysrhythmia: Test of Submission

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

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

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):

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Slipping into the past: The eerie pull of 'I Called Him Morgan'

Note: Some of what follows could be considered spoiler material. If you haven't seen I Called Him Morgan and plan to, it might be a good idea to steer clear of this post until afterward.

Everyone interviewed in I Called Him Morgan exhibits an almost eerie recall of the events they're looking back on. Though the two main characters in the story, trumpeter Lee Morgan and his wife, Helen, who shot and killed him after an argument at East Village jazz mecca Slug's Saloon in February 1972, have been dead for decades, it's as if they're both suspended in some weird gray area in the minds of these survivors. Late in the film, as the lengthy 1996 audio interview with Helen by teacher Larry Reni Thomas that forms the backbone of the story winds to a close, Helen describes the disbelief she felt in immediate aftermath of the shooting, saying something to the effect of, "I couldn't have done this." She recalls wondering if the event was all a dream that she'd soon wake from. A similar sensation hangs over the whole documentary, a feeling that a sort of daze settled over the survivors of this tragedy, Morgan's friends and fellow musicians, upon his death, and that for them, he's still close enough to touch.

There is some footage in this documentary that felt so intimate and affecting I almost couldn't believe I was watching it. You see a snippet of one of these moments in the trailer, when Wayne Shorter, holding a photo of him and Morgan, the trumpeter's head bandaged in the wake of an injury he suffered when he was high on heroin, begins to actually address Morgan. "What are you doing, man?" he says, in an approximation of what he might have been thinking at the time, watching his friend slip into addiction. Morgan died more than 45 years ago, but Shorter says later that he still thinks of him frequently.

Everyone here seems to, or at least when they do, their recollections are extremely vivid. We hear the most evocative and transportive accounts I've ever heard of what it was actually like to make records for Blue Note, musicians recalling the party-like atmosphere that accompanied those classic sessions, with Alfred Lion providing food and drinks and Francis Wolff snapping those later-to-become-legendary images The photo of Morgan and some others standing outside what I'm guessing is the Van Gelder Studio, Morgan making a goofy face at the camera — something he apparently did often; one friend says he used to call himself Howdy Doody as a nod to his large ears — and drinking a Pepsi, is the lighthearted flip side to those mythic, smoke-filled Wolff portraits.

Drummers Charli Persip, who played with Morgan in Dizzy Gillespie's big band, and Albert "Tootie" Heath recall living the high life with Morgan, seeking out the best clothes, the coolest cars, driving fast through Central Park at night. Friend Judith Johnson also remembers drives with Morgan: They'd cruise the West Side Highway on the way to or from New Jersey, checking out jazz on Johnson's car 8-track player.

The specter of heroin does of course eventually creep in and overtake the narrative, setting the stage for the greater tragedy to come. And there is a certain hush or gloom that hangs over the entire film. This is a documentary bathed in shadow and snow, with scene-setting footage evoking dark NYC streets at night and the blizzard that struck the city the night Morgan died. Even the interviews — Shorter's, filmed in a sunny living room, is an exception — seem to be cast in a kind of ominously fading light, though in a way that feels natural and unaffected.

And yet, as with the discussions of the Blue Note sessions or the after-hours high life, director Kasper Collin (who made an Albert Ayler doc I remember loving but haven't seen in ages) takes care to show us both sides of this saga. One of the most poignant sections of the film comes when Bennie Maupin, Morgan's close friend and collaborator in his later years, recalls the glorious, sun-and-sand-filled Hermosa Beach visit that yielded Morgan's classic Live at the Lighthouse LP, a shining document of him kicking heroin — thanks, the film suggests, almost entirely to Helen's assistance — and reclaiming his position as a thriving jazz star. Billy Harper's recollection of playing alongside Morgan on the jazz TV show Soulseen here in black-and-white, though it's color in the film — conjures another moment that feels almost exalted, the footage and his description capturing that special style and power and command found in the best '70s mainstream jazz (the kind that Harper and Co. now carry on in the Cookers). I also loved hearing the account from bassist Paul West — another fellow Gillespie alum — of Morgan's happy post-addiction years mentoring young musicians through the Jazzmobile program.

The thing to remember about Morgan's shooting is that it happened in a crowded club. As with every other scene he sets, Kollin really takes us inside Slug's that night. Harper recalls hearing the shots but not immediately thinking anything was wrong. And then Morgan was down, and the ambulance didn't arrive for an hour due to the snowstorm. Bassist Jymie Merritt talks about not only never being able to walk down that street again after Morgan's death but of leaving NYC for good.

Helen, in some ways the movie's star, is also its greatest enigma. Her first-person narration is invaluable because it allows us to weigh her account as we will. We hear about her rough upbringing in the South — she was a mother by 13 — her determination to make it to NYC, her establishing of a kind of jazz-lovers' salon in her West Side apartment, her meeting of Morgan during his peak junkie years. Kollin isn't letting Helen off the hook, but he does make a point of showing us all sides of this saga, how in some ways the tragic end of her and Lee's love story seemed fated. (There's a lot of talk in the movie of portent, of how both Helen and Lee foresaw something dark on the horizon as their relationship started to unravel.) We don't get to hear much of her own account of her life after the shooting, though her son does paint a picture of a woman who found refuge and a kind of salvation in the church. And the bassist Larry Ridley recalls a cathartic encounter with her after she got out of prison.

Overall, again, I Called Him Morgan captures the strange kind of daze that settled over everyone who knew this couple after that horrible winter night in 1972. The musicians — Shorter, Merritt, Harper, Ridley, Maupin, Heath, Persip, West and others — form a survivors' brotherhood, a group of men scarred by Morgan's absence but also blessed by the time they had with him. Not just for the audience but for the participants themselves — think of Shorter, slipping into the past and speaking directly to the Lee Morgan in the photo, from probably half a century or more earlier, when the two were young and hungry, living out their dreams as members of the Jazz Messengers — I Called Him Morgan is a time machine, allowing us all inside what really has to be one of the ultimate jazz legends. It's a haunting journey, with a kind of moody magnetism that sometimes feels downright intoxicating. But it's one well worth taking.


*Here's Nate Chinen's excellent, detailed take on the film. I didn't read till after I was done with the post above, but he fixates on the same Shorter moment I called out — it really is a chilling scene.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Those once (and always) loyal: Bolt Thrower's search for perfection

CoC: I'd say there isn't a huge progression of Bolt Thrower...
Thank you. We take that as a compliment.
CoC: Will you pretty much be staying the same from here onwards?
We think so. We look for perfection. That's what we're searching for. If we ever think that we can't release an album as good as the last one, we won't. Releasing a crap or watered down album means that it's gone for us, 'cause the music is gone.
Chronicles of Chaos interview with Bolt Thrower guitarist Gavin Ward, 1999

In a sense, it is gone for Bolt Thrower. Founded in 1986, the band broke up exactly 30 years later, following the sudden 2015 death of their drummer, Martin "Kiddie" Kearns. But the evidence of their search lives on, and as bodies of work go, it's an extremely sturdy one.

For me, recently, listening-wise, it's really been a Bolt Thrower binge. This began a couple weeks ago, when I started spinning the newly released For the Fallen heavily. That album is the first full-length by Memoriam, which is a sort of a Bolt Thrower sequel band — not to mention, in some ways, a Kearns tribute band — featuring BT frontman Karl Willetts and the band's early-period drummer Andrew Whale.

FtF is a highly enjoyable record, and I wrote some further thoughts here, in Rolling Stone's weekly new-releases round-up. But even with so much history behind it — in addition to the former Bolt Thrower dudes, the band features their fellow U.K. punk/metal scene vet Frank Healy, also of the bands Benediction and Sacrilege — it still feels like a debut, a powerful statement by a band that still has a couple of kinks to work out.

Bolt Thrower, on the other hand, had ample time to mature. They released three increasingly confident albums from '88 to '91 — many would call 1989's Realm of Chaos – Slaves to Darkness and 1991's War Master classics, but to me, as powerful as they are, they still sound developmental in light of the glories that were to follow— and then, with '92's The IVth Crusade, attained a new level of command and authority, shedding the grindcore-style rawness evident on the earlier records in favor of what I think of as the classic BT sound, a chiseled and charging form of epic heavy metal, a sonic manifestation of endurance, struggle and triumph, music that drives so hard and so far and so consistently that it really does embody Ward's words above. If perfection was what they were searching for, I'd say they achieved it on their later releases, especially 1994's …For Victory, 1998's Mercenary and 2005's Those Once Loyal. (I set 2001's very strong Honour – Valour – Pride slightly apart because it featured Benediction vocalist Dave Ingram rather than Willetts, thus rendering it a little less-than-canonical.)

Thematically, Bolt Thrower's music dealt pretty much exclusively with war, both in the sort of fantastical role-playing-game sense and the gritty, historically rooted one. You hear both a glorification of human conflict in their work as well as a condemnation of it. But what you mainly hear is this kind of relentless heave and churn, this flattening onslaught. Whether at the pace of a steady trudge or a headlong charge, Bolt Thrower's music is always pressing forward.

Ward, fellow guitarist Barry "Baz" Thomson and bassist Jo Bench (a rare and inspiring female presence in a truly iconic old-school extreme-metal band; I highly recommend checking out Kim Kelly's roundtable-style tribute piece to learn more), the three core members that appeared on every Bolt Thrower LP, formed this kind of ironclad, immovable center. In terms of that aforementioned search for perfection, they were the true keepers of the flame, the ones who clearly understood what an invaluable property Bolt Thrower's integrity was, that to "progress" or alter their approach in some essential way would be to break the spell, to breach the underground contract, as it were.

If you've read my thoughts on Obituary, for example, this might all sound quite familiar, and certainly, the basic principle is the same here. But what I feel each time I immerse in one of these masterful, decades-spanning catalogs by an underground institution, the concept hits me anew. You can pan out and lump bands together into convenient categories, pretend that the sensation of Obituary's raw, swampy nastiness, so clearly a product of their Florida roots, really feels anything like Bolt Thrower's unmistakably British air of might and majesty — with Willetts' inimitably grand-yet-gruff oaths, like the proclamations of some Harsh Narrator of Man's Eternal Struggle, leading the charge — and that what either band does could be aptly summed up by a term as blunt as "death metal." The deeper I go into this music, though, the more I savor the depth and distinction of each truly great band's approach, and the more I resist the common practice of lumping them all together. Obituary makes Obituary Music; Bolt Thrower made Bolt Thrower Music. And that's pretty much that.

Heaviness, whatever that term can even signify at this late stage of overuse, is about sound, yes, the sense of a band's combined force weighing on top of you in a near-physical way, but it's also about this intangible quality of authority and commitment and immersion and lifer-ness, a quality analogous to the "folkloric" sensation that Ethan Iverson often invokes when discussing a certain kind of jazz-before-the-jazz-education-complex, the learned-by-doing, or passed-down-by-the-elders kind (see this Buck Hill obit, for example).

Cutting-edge extreme-metal techniques — especially, say, blast-beat drumming or Meshuggah's devilish syncopations — are now becoming catalogued and canonized the same way jazz has been over the past half-century or so. You can watch hours of tutorials on YouTube, read musician magazines, learn how it's done in the letter-of-the-law sense. But, quite simply, you don't get here by studying in the conventional sense:

As with Obituary, the Bolt Thrower experience is about the steady amassing of authority, and the goes-without-saying concepts that Gavin Ward so handily lays out above: You don't "progress," per se, but that doesn't mean you don't improve. Instead what you do is methodically shore up the sound, close off every avenue of distraction from the core mission (note the jettisoning of blast beats from the Bolt Thrower playbook after War Master) and figure out how to drench every moment of Bolt Thrower music in this signature feeling. It's a gradual becoming-of-self, the building over time of a catalog that will stand as a true metal monolith — and to my ears, Bolt Thrower never wavered once.


*Another great Gavin Ward interview, from the Honour – Valour – Pride era, in which he delves further into the band's single-minded ethos:
Maelstrom: Does this approach in terms of not progressing compromise you as an artist, and do you care?
Gavin Ward: Nah, I don't care. I've never considered myself an artist or a musician anyway. We're just a band, playing music we're into.
*And another great Kim Kelly tribute to BT, this one focusing on the way they went out on top with Those Once Loyal. As well as her new interview with Willetts about Memoriam.

*Listening-wise, it's really not about individual tracks here. I'd recommend just starting with Those Once Loyal and working backward. It's all great.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

"Pure physical euphoric energy": Obituary's eternal gifts

Now live at Rolling Stone, a new feature on the mighty Obituary.

The seeds of this piece were planted back in 2011, when I wrote about the band for DFSBP. As I explained then, I'd been listening to them on and off for close to two decades by that point, but it was only after seeing them live that I fully comprehended how special they actually were. (A similar thing happened more recently with Crowbar, a band I wrote about for RS last year.)

I've since reached a new peak of Obituary obsession, and thus it was an absolute pleasure and honor to put together this piece. Obituary are the shining exemplars of an M.O. I've written about a lot over the years, fairly common in the metal underground, wherein a band establishes a signature sound early in their career and simply sticks with it, album after album, show after show, year after year, decade after decade.

It's not exactly true to say that Obituary haven't changed. Pore through their discography and you'll start to discern clear early-, mid- and late-period sounds: unrelentingly harsh yet at times surprisingly compositionally involved (Slowly We Rot, Cause of Death, The End Complete); tougher, leaner and bullishly groove-centric (World Demise, Back From the Dead, Frozen in Time); and, most recently, looser, rawer and more all-around rawk-and-roll–ish (Xecutioner's Return, Darkest Day, Inked in Blood and the new Obituary). Not every one of these albums is flawless, but every one is worth hearing, as is the robust, spectacular-sounding 1998 live release Dead.

This band's head-down consistency brings me inordinate pleasure. I'll turn the mic over to Andrew W.K. — friend and former employer of Obituary drummer Donald Tardy and, incidentally, a former co-owner of Santos Party House, where I saw Obituary back in 2011 — who had this to say in 2015 of his love of vintage death metal, specifically Obituary and their peers Napalm Death:

"To be able to listen to something so many times and only like it more, and I liked it a lot the first time, but now to be able to rely on that as an energy source, to be able to turn to that no matter what state I'm in and have it instantly take me to this place of pure physical euphoric energy, it's one of the things I'm most thankful for in life, it's like water or food to me, it feeds my soul in a very fundamental way, and I can't believe how lucky I am that it exists."

I relate to this sentiment completely. I absolutely rely on Obituary as an energy source, as food for my soul. For all its minimalism, I find their catalog to be inexhaustible, because it's just that goddamn powerful and true and decisive and real-feeling. The agreed-upon shorthand for what they do is "death metal" — a term that already falls so woefully short as a catch-all because all these great first-generation bands, from Death to Deicide to Morbid Angel to Cannibal Corpse, sound completely different from one another — but their output is so clearly born out of passion and love and life. The product of finding that one thing, that precise vision that you want, need, to realize and seeing it through, time and time again, over the course of the decades. Some music pushes outward; Obituary's gift is for burrowing inward, for becoming more and more themselves as time goes by. Stand by and behold and marvel and — if you're anything like me — rejoice.

Here are eight great Obituary songs. (I wanted to pick one from each studio LP, but sadly, Xecutioner's Return and Darkest Day, both very good, overlooked albums, aren't currently streaming.)

Friday, March 03, 2017

Join us: Skryptor's first shows

This coming weekend marks the live debut of a new band I'm in called Skryptor. The lineup consists of Tim Garrigan on guitar, David McClelland on bass and myself on drums, playing music we've written as a group, plus (so far) one cover.

This is a significant project for me, and not just because I'm excited about how the songs are shaping up. If my 15-year-old self could somehow read the first paragraph of this post, his mind would be blown. Tim (formerly of Dazzling Killmen, You Fantastic! and other projects) and Dave (also of craw) are musicians I've looked up to for more than two decades. It's no exaggeration to say that the music each of these men helped to create in the early '90s significantly influenced the direction of my life from that point on — as a musician, I consider myself to be a product of an unofficial movement they were each an integral part of: progressive Midwestern post-hardcore, if you want to put a name on it (see also: Season to Risk, Colossamite, Cheer-Accident and many others). I've collaborated with both of them before — with Dave in the band Bat Eats Plastic (originally known as Today) and with Tim backing him in his solo singer-songwriter work — but never at the same time, and never as what I'd consider to be a mature (or at least maturing) musician who has significant experiences and ideas of his own to bring to the table.

For a little preview of the music — concise yet complex instrumental rock that falls somewhere between prog and punk, and sounds (to me, at least) not all that much like anything any of the three of us have done before — check out the clips posted on our Facebook page.

Here's all the info on our first two shows, taking place in Kingston, NY, on Saturday and in Queens on Sunday. Joining us for both will be the awesome Xaddax, featuring Tim's old Dazzling Killmen bandmate Nick Sakes. Ultraam — a psych-meets-jazz improv band featuring members of Mercury Rev, Luna and Trans Am — will top the Kingston bill and maniacal local avant-death-metalists Pyrrhon (featuring onetime DFSBP contributor Doug Moore) will headline in Queens. More info below and at the FB event pages I've linked to.

Saturday, March 4
@ BSP Lounge, Kingston


9pm, $8 


Sunday, March 5
@ Trans-Pecos, Queens


8pm, $10

Goodbye, Misha Mengelberg

I once saw a Misha Mengelberg–Han Bennink duo concert at Lincoln Center during which, as I recall, Bennink stood on his drum throne and began to flap his arms like a bird, making squawking noises as Mengelberg played on, seemingly oblivious. Then Bennink tore up pieces of newspaper, set them on fire and threw them at the pianist one by one. (Ben Ratliff's review is probably a more reliable eyewitness account of the May 2000 gig.)

I'm not an expert in Mengelberg's work, but I'm sad to hear of his passing. His rapport with Bennink was something unique and precious, an absurdist manifestation of jazz that also embodied great poetry and tenderness and nostalgia and virtuosity and love for the art form.

I treasure the records these two made with Steve Lacy, especially the 1983 Monk / Herbie Nichols tribute Regeneration. Four in One, a 2001 Mengelberg quartet disc with Bennink, Dave Douglas and Brad Jones, is also great. The vast recorded legacy of the ICP Orchestra and its various predecessors and offshoots is on my to-do list.

Farewell to this unassuming legend, and co-godfather to a vital European scene, who came at jazz from his own oblique angle. Who honored his idols by establishing his own brand of cool: sly, deadpan and timeless.


*Read Ethan Iverson's informed, insightful take.