Thursday, May 31, 2012

Maryland Deathfest X

 I. Communion

This past Monday afternoon, I returned from Maryland Deathfest X, a four-day metal showcase in downtown Baltimore. I feel completely daunted trying to translate this experience into words. I did contribute text to a slideshow of images by the excellent photographer Josh Sisk (who also took the Morbid Angel pic above and all the photos you'll find below), which you'll find at the Spin site, but there's more I need to say. The fest got to me in a personal way. I'm tempted to allude to that cliché of an experience "awakening feelings one hadn't remembered one had."

I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. Prior to this past weekend, the fact that I loved metal and had for roughly two decades was no secret either to myself or to anyone who might've read my writing. What Deathfest did stir up for me, though, was this deep, primal connection I feel toward the genre, something that goes way beyond "fandom" or "preference" or any of that. I can only describe it as a call that I feel, like I'm being overtaken and compelled by the music, like I'm regressing into a primitive state in which thought is thrown out and volume and impact and gravity and darkness are the only stimulae that matter. I guess it's not that different from what a club-music enthusiast seeks when they hit the dance floor. You want to be overwhelmed.

And I was overwhelmed many times this weekend, in the presence of many, many bands. (I'm not sure exactly how many sets I saw, in full or in part, but it had to have been something like 40.) I don't think I'll ever forget Morbid Angel's headlining set on Saturday. I've blabbed incessantly about this band on DFSBP, so I'll forgo the long version of the story and simply say that Morbid Angel is (a) one of my favorite bands, full stop, and (b) my favorite band in the subgenre of death metal, and that (c) their 1993 album, Covenant, is my favorite metal album of any kind. I've loved them since I was about 15.

Anyway, so I wanted to experience their show from up close—in the pit, as it were. Along with my wife, La'al—my constant companion throughout this metal odyssey and an insanely good sport re: the four straight ten-hour days of standing up, eating shitty food, inhaling way too much second-hand smoke, etc.—I spent much of the weekend avoiding the pit, i.e., standing either to the side or behind or, in some cases, in front of the typically very clearly demarcated area where people deliberately and gleefully kick the shit out of each other as they listen to a band play.  In the case of the Morbid Angel show, though, I wanted to be right up there in the mix, not necessarily to "mosh," but more to just feel that electricity and turbulence that you only get at an extreme-metal (or maybe hardcore) show. I was up there with some new friends that La'al and I made over the weekend, an extremely cool and metal-obsessed couple from Madision, WI, and we were all ready for the insanity, and the insanity did come, as soon as the band kicked into its customary opener, "Immortal Rites" (first track on their first LP, of course). What happens is that you're being completely jostled and squashed from all sides, but these "ground" concerns pale in comparison to the aerial ones, namely the ever-present threat of being kicked in the back, head or neck by a crowd-surfer. Anyone who's ever stood up front at a metal show knows that feeling of being suddenly, unceremoniously landed on. So what you do is, you look back every few moments to make sure a boot isn't headed your way. Sometimes you get lost in the music and you forget to check, and you're punished with another sudden smash. I received one of these on Saturday, which hurt a little more than average because the dude who landed on me just happened to be wearing an enormous spiked armband that dug into my shoulder.

I remember that I got out of the pit soon after that last incident and went to stand with La'al on the sidelines (though not at this particular moment, she was up there with me plenty, especially during Eyehategod's ultra-chaotic Thursday set, which simply could not have been more fun). I thought I was done, that I'd had enough, that I was content to watch and listen and not necessarily to feel the show physically. But then frontman David Vincent announced "Sworn to the Black," one of my favorite songs off Covenant, a badass midtempo steamroller of a song, and I was straight up magnetized right back into the pit. Not being up there wasn't an option. It was like being pulled in by a tractor beam, regressing to a Neanderthal state, that primal mind, the one that wants only loudness, physicality. I remember headbanging in concert with another dude I didn't know. I was where I needed to be at that moment.

Metal can be as high-minded as any other style, but that caveman-izing phenomenon shouldn't be discounted. It's like the music mutates your genetic makeup temporarily, regresses you to a place where merely hearing isn't enough. You want the sonic impact to have a counterpart in the physical world. You want it to kick your ass—"it" being not only the music but the combined force of the others around you who have been likewise caveman-ized. You want to know the music bodily. You want communion.

II. The music

 Confessor live at MDF X
Photos graciously provided by Josh Sisk

Maryland Deathfest is special for one principal reason: the booking. Bands that may have released an album 20 years ago that's become a cult favorite show up at Deathfest and receive a hero's welcome. (I think of a group like Finland's Demigod, covered in the Spin slideshow, who devoted their show to a beloved 1992 full-length, Slumber of Sullen Eyes.) And bands that exist in fans' minds only as a grainy vintage photo on a demo tape (or blog) suddenly materialize in the flesh. (This year, Pentagram, a Chilean death-thrash band—i.e., not the Virginia doom institution—also discussed in the Spin feature, was one of these.) When I think about all the past Deathfests that I've missed, all these once-in-a-lifetime materializations (e.g., a 2006 set by the fantastically out-there Finnish death-metal band Demilich), I get a little sad. For the enthusiast of the metal underground, this event is pretty much unmissable.

Whatever I might have missed at past unattended Deathfests, at least I got to see Confessor this year. DFSBP readers might recall some raving on the subject of Loincloth. Confessor shares a drummer, Steve Shelton, with Loincloth; or, more accurately, Loincloth shares a drummer with Confessor. As anyone who's heard the recent Loincloth LP could tell you, Shelton is as true an original as has ever played the kit. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview him recently for a magazine profile that might not be out for a while; rest assured, I will keep you posted.

Confessor's MDF set, as far as I know, their first in roughly six years (not counting a warm-up gig they played in their hometown of Raleigh, NC, the week before the fest) was the draw that made 2012's Deathfest unmissable for me. I'd had serious designs on MDF in the past, but when I heard that Confessor was playing, I knew I simply had to be there. I first heard the band's debut album, 1991's Condemned, maybe five or six years ago and quickly flipped for it. It enthralls me even more now: unrelentingly knotty doom metal with high, clean, piercing vocals. I know that bands as prominent as Lamb of God have claimed Confessor as an influence, but there's nothing else even remotely like them in the fossil record, as far as I know. They belong to no scene.

As mentioned above, I was on assignment at MDF. So the entire weekend, I did my best to strike a sometimes tricky balance between experiencing the music—bodily, emotionally and even, I'd say, spiritually, as was the case with the aforementioned Morbid Angel set—and processing it journalistically, either via Twitter or my trusty notepads. I didn't worry about the latter during Confessor's Saturday set; I knew that there was a good chance this would be the only time I'd ever see this band perform—even in their early-’90s heyday, they never really toured in the U.S. outside the Southeast—so I wanted to be fully present.

The set was, simply, outstanding. It was such a blessing to be able to hear these songs—every single one, minus a lone track ("Defining Happiness"), from Condemned, plus two from the 2005 follow-up, Unraveled, and an intro riff that according to Steve Shelton dates from the earliest days of the band—up close at a deafening volume. Condemned boasts one of the strangest mixing/production jobs you'll ever hear; it's bone dry, insanely drum-heavy and ultimately kind of thin-sounding. I've grown to love the album's obtuse sonics, but live, the songs just bloomed. I marveled anew at how, despite their obsessive complexity, the band always finds a way to lay back and cruise in their grooves. One of the two guitarists, Brian Shoaf, was wearing a Skynyrd shirt during the set, and while Shelton informed me during our interview that he hates Southern rock, I couldn't help viewing that as a new key to the Confessor aesthetic. They certainly don't flaunt their Southern-ness the way, say, Eyehategod (who floored me with their Thursday set, documented in the Spin slide show) do, but there is a kind of laid-back swagger to their riffing, even at its most mad-scientist techy, that squares with their native region. And while Shelton punishes his kit (especially the toms) he also exudes relaxation while he plays—strange given the tense, OCD nature of his beats.

Another thing that struck me is Confessor's astonishing multivalence. During our conversation, Shelton also mentioned to me the idea that his parts often ran so counter to what the guitarists were playing—completely by design, mind you—that they quickly learned to ignore his drumming entirely when executing the songs. You could really see that live. Bassist Cary Rowells (who also played on all the Loincloth material release to date, but as I understand it, is no longer involved with the project; he currently keeps busy with Parasite Drag, which features Dave Dorsey of the short-lived Confessor spin-off band Fly Machine, whose slim discography was recently reissued by Divebomb Records, who also put out a cool Confessor demo compilation—check out the package deal if you want to buy both) is in a way the heart and soul of Confessor, the relay man who conveys info between Shelton and the guitarists. Shoaf and the other six-stringer (a new face to me but apparently an old friend of the band—unfortunately I didn't jot down his name) seemed to take their cues from him onstage, studiously blocking out Shelton's treacherous syncopation and beat-flipping.

And, as on the records, frontman Scott Jeffreys is in his own world. He knows exactly where to come in—God knows how—and it has to be an act of pure will, the vocal equivalent of muscle memory, because there's nothing intuitive about the way his parts mesh with the music. I know Jeffreys is a sticking point for some, an obstacle to their enjoyment of Confessor, but I've come to truly love what he does. As far as Saturday's show, I was blown away by how undiminished his voice is; he still sounds as pained and expressive as he ever did, not to mention as high. His voice is truly ear-bending. It first hits the ear like a dog whistle would a canine's, but ultimately I find an eerie beauty in it. Like the band as a whole, it sounds like nothing else in metal.

Bonus tracks:

[I prepared the first three blurbs below for the Spin slide show, but they didn't make the final cut. The latter two are new. Again, Josh Sisk has graciously provided his images.]

Negură Bunget

 One of the biggest surprises of Friday's lineup, Negură Bunget made a private ritual chamber out of Sonar's indoor stage. The Romanian black metal band offset its frillier elements (symphonic synths, a pan-flute-assisted invocation, actual singing) with ferocious impact, juggling dynamics as well as any other band at the fest. Frontman Chakravartin was a gracious host—you could tell he was thrilled to be on one of extreme metal's most prestigious stages—and a couldn't-take-your-eyes-off-him lightning rod, projecting a charisma that put some of the more-traditional corpsepainted types of the weekend to shame.

Morbid Saint

 Hailing from the distinctly un-metal-ish burg of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Morbid Saint delivered one of the fest's most satisfying leather-and-denim blasts, a complete rundown of their fan-favorite 1988 LP, Spectrum of Death. "It has no political message, but it's pretty fuckin' fast," frontman Pat Lind admitted before one track, perfectly summing up the band's M.O.: steroidal, air-tight thrash with snarled vox that sound surprisingly close to black metal's trademark register. In between songs, Lind played the ham ("Are we stalling ’cause we're hot? You betcha!") and tossed Morbid Saint beer koozies and other merch goodies to the adoring crowd. This set was a front-to-back, only-at-MDF blast.


 Many seemed a little bewildered by the Yankee-capped New Yawk vibe of this veteran noise-rock trio, but by the time Chris Spencer & Co. kicked into their head-bobbing recent classic "Against the Grain," the crowd was fully on board. Unsane usually seems like the meanest act on any bill, but here, their cathartic tales of urban rot came off as surprisingly tender. The failed-relationship waltz "Decay," from this year's fine Wreck, was a balm to bleeding ears, the closest thing to a ballad we'd hear all weekend.


I owned this band's 1993 album, Odium, for a short while during adolescence, but I'll be damned if I can remember much about what it sounds like. So I was pretty much coming to this MDF set fresh.  It turned out to be one of the more enjoyable gigs of the weekend. These Germans played a death-metal-leaning brand of extreme thrash—a style I associate with At the Gates, though Morgoth's Marc Grewe has a much gruffer vocal style than ATG's Tomas Lindberg—with massive riffs and an infectious rock & roll attitude, the closest thing to an old-school biker vibe that I witnessed at the fest. (For the record, I'm pretty sure much of the material was drawn from ’91's Cursed.) Nothing really out of the ordinary going on here musically, but the energy was great and perfect for an outdoor daytime set.


 There's been a huge buzz building re: this Auckland band recently. While their records haven't entirely clicked with me yet, their MDF set was badass. They strike me as sort of a more atmospheric update on From Wisdom to Hate–era Gorguts, combining that band's choppy, gritted-teeth technicality—with micro blast-beat passages that leap out briefly rather than just droning along—and spacious atmospherics. They were one of the tightest bands I heard all weekend; there wasn't a lot of variety to what they were throwing down, but I definitely enjoyed it.

It was interesting to note that the room was only about half full during Ulcerate's set; the day they played, Sunday, was dominated by doom, and much of the crowd was outside checking out Church of Misery when Ulcerate was onstage. (I watched a bit of each set, which made for a fascinating juxtaposition.) On the whole, I felt like the more technical acts at this year's MDF—specifically Ulcerate and Confessor—kind of threw the audience for a loop. The more stripped-down, old-school, mosh- and headbangable stuff (e.g., the aforementioned Pentagram) seemed to be what most of the attendees were really hungry for.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Dio Effect: Pallbearer live

Many years ago, I first heard a particularly ineffective cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs", by the Providence death-metal band Vital Remains. Revisiting it now, it seems to me that while the musicians could use a lesson in groove, they sound fine—hitting their marks, executing as needed. The vocals, on the other hand, still present a serious problem. As in Vital Remains's original material, the frontman opts for a distorted growl—not even close to the most guttural and unintelligible register heard in death metal, but still a refutation of the idea that "notes" are a vocalist's concern. So what the cover does is willfully rob this classic song of half its melodic juice; all the beauty and the wonder of Ozzy's vocal melody, it's simply absent.

Now, I listen to a lot of death metal. I enjoy the style immensely, even—and, lately, especially—in its most primitive and conventional forms (Obituary and Immolation, to name two). Sometimes, what people often refer to as the Cookie Monster vocal style works fine for me. Some of my favorite metal records—Morbid Angel's Covenant, for instance—wouldn't work with any other approach. But sometimes you hear something that reminds you that, "Oh, yeah—singing matters."

I had a transcendent experience hearing Pallbearer live last night at Saint Vitus. They're one of the bands I'm talking about. Their singer, Brett Campbell, is all about pinched, pained, soaring melody, in the vein of early Ozzy. To hear his bright, clear voice leaping out across the vast, doomy expanse he and his band lay down is downright startling, like witnessing a splendidly colored bird flying across a grey, postapocalyptic sky.

I'm realizing now that the Vital Remains comparison might be a faulty one, simply because in Pallbearer's chosen subgenre—I'd call it traditional doom metal, i.e., the kind that makes no effort to disguise its Sabbath worship—so-called clean vocals are pretty common. It's in death and black metal that the growls and shrieks hold sway. But this whole notion occurred to me last night because I've been taking my metal all on one plate lately. Saint Vitus is about a seven minute walk from my apartment, and over the past year, I've seen a bunch of metal shows there, in many different styles: NYC caveman-death veterans Mortician, Richmond grind-thrash fantasists Deceased, riff-forward Washington-state black-metalists Inquisition. Seeing Pallbearer last night, I realized that I'd become numb to the idea that a vocalist is, in fact, allowed to use his or her voice to contribute to the song of the music, to make any kind of melodic statement.

You start to forget about the Dio Effect of metal, that sort of "Weary monarch alone in his chambers, lamenting the sorry state of his kingdom and maybe his life" pathos that can be the province of metal, if metal so chooses. (Sabbath's "Falling Off the Edge of the World"—with, yes, Ronnie James Dio at the mic—has been my go-to gold standard of late.) Often, modern metal chooses the opposite: total subhuman bludgeon. "We are not men at all; we are monsters, even demons."

But the two new metal records that have spoken to me the most this year—aside from Loincloth's vocal-less masterpiece—are Christian Mistress's Possession (go here and scroll down a bit) and Pallbearer's Sorrow and Extinction, both of which thrive on unadulterated Dio-ness, that certain quality of metal that makes you want to bend your elbow and curl your fingers into the time-honored invisible-orange gesture, clenching into a fist for emphasis. It's not too surprising that I'd be seeking out the Dio Effect in new metal, given that Sabbath—especially the Dio records Mob Rules, Dehumanizer and (under the Heaven and Hell moniker) The Devil You Know but also, more recently, the almighty Paranoid—has occupied a huge swath of my listening during the same time period.

What the Dio approach, i.e., the decision to have the vocals go out on a limb melodically, to really present musical information the ear can use and respond to, beyond mere assaultive static, allows for is the possibility of multiplication, the chance for the music and the voice to fuse into some irreducible, alchemical third medium. With the Cookie Monster approach, or any vocal style that negates melody, it's like band vs. listener, wherein everyone onstage is coming directly at you. With the Dio approach, though, you get this marvelous inter-band conflict; the inherent struggle of metal is contained within the music, so that it takes the form of a joust or some other kind of stylized (or maybe even not so) struggle.

That struggle played out on the Saint Vitus stage last night. Pallbearer conjured its gargantuan riffs as a unit, collectively summoned them forth from Middle Earth, or Vulcan's forge, or wherever it is that the slow-moving magma of great, Sabbath-derived blues metal spews from. And as these riffs raged and rolled, washed outward from the stage in monster waves, there was Brett Campbell, stepping to the mic like a man on the mount, daring to cry forth in the face of God's deafening roar.

I felt compelled to throw up the invisible-oranges with almost alarming regularity. The music crashed around me with Greek-tragic gravity. It just felt so unbelievably weighty, and I found myself thinking that this is the essence of this music, this is what has been missing in so many of the extreme-metal performances I've witnessed recently, this element of human struggle, when the voice is not disguised with layers of Halloween-y play-acting, the aural equivalent of the face paint that turns black metal into evil Kabuki. But, God forbid, to hear the heart bared on the battlefield, to hear the sorrow within the slaughter. It was almost too much.

Even when Campbell wasn't singing, the Dio Effect was present, because the key is that you know there's a voice out there in that wilderness. It isn't merely the wilds of riff-land, where guitars and drums construct these impossibly tall, forbidding trees, clustering together in a lightless forest. What you realize when you see a band like Pallbearer is that that effect is more or less exactly half of what great metal is capable of. The other half comes when you know there's a human, preferably a solitary, wretched one, lost within that wildnerness. One who may have lost possessions, loved ones, even faith, but one who hasn't lost the ability to cry out, to lament, to emote. To sing.

Pallbearer didn't say much to the audience other than "Thank you," but the band exuded pure graciousness. After each song, fists would raise in the crowd, and the band members would hoist their beers and nod as if to say, "We know. We're here with you. We feel it too." What it is, is this metal phenomenon that makes you feel like you're tapping into something old and elemental, participating in an ancient ritual. You don't know how or why this combination of 1) volume, 2) darkness, 3) human perspective in the face of a cold, unforgiving universe (gaze at the album cover at the top of this post as you ponder that notion), yields a feeling of cleansing grace, of having been touched by something huge and terrifying yet also unspeakably beautiful. All you know is that the band feels it, and when a show is really right, the whole crowd feels it too, and gives back. Maybe they're just hoisting beers; maybe dudes are grabbing fellow dudes and throwing horn signs with their hands; maybe they're headbanging, convulsing in time with the stone giant's every earth-shaking step. Maybe, as I did last night, they're closing their eyes, bending backward, facing the ceiling, getting outside the room, the city, the world. At that point, you're not just listening; you're communing.

That's what great metal does, and the Dio Effect makes it all possible.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Dealbreaker: On the Black Sabbath "reunion"

If you haven't been following the saga of the latest Black Sabbath "reunion," I'll fill you in. Basically, the band's original line-up made a big fuss of announcing its re-formation last November. A press release went out, promising a new Rick Rubin–produced album due in 2012, plus a world tour. Many grumbled that Ozzy, for one, was in terrible shape and that the effort would be a wash. Personally—as I said on the radio—I was thrilled at the prospect of getting to see one of my favorite bands live, since my Sabbath obsession bloomed too late for me to catch any of their late ’90s or mid-aughts Ozzfest shows.

The whole thing went to hell this past February, though, as drummer Bill Ward went public about the un-"signable" contract that the band's management had handed him. A few months of back-and-forth followed, and yesterday, Ward finally put the matter to rest. Barring a miracle, he won't be participating in the reunion. You should click that link and read the full statement; it's really pretty wrenching. Ward tells the story of an acquaintance of his brother's, whose son was dead-set on seeing Ward perform with the band.

My heart sank when Jimmy told me about this young boy. I know this boy is going to be disappointed, and I don’t know how to amend it, other than to put my arms around the boy and tell him I love him. Sabbath fans have a voice and a face, to me you’re human, you have families and despair. You have ferocity and emotions and graciousness, and at this moment as far as I’m concerned you are also that young boy in England.

There's another intense moment near the end:

Since Spring of 2011, I’ve waited patiently and hopefully for a signable contract, you know the rest. I stand for the boy in the U.K., for the coming drum student, for all the drummers, who write their parts out and get stiffed on the publishing, I stand with the Sabbath fans chanting “Bill Ward” and asking “why?” and I stand with Tony and Geezer and Ozzy.
Of course, this is a statement of drummer's rights, for one—a "We're not gonna take it" manifesto, with haunting echoes of the late Levon Helm's decades-long vilification of Robbie Robertson for unfair royalty-royalty hogging with respect to the Band's catalog. ("…Rick [Danko]…died with his money in their goddamned pockets… People ask me about The Last Waltz all the time. Rick Danko dying at fifty-six is what I think about The Last Waltz."—This Wheel's on Fire) But it's also, as I see it, a statement of consumer advocacy: In part what Ward is saying, or at least implying, is that just as band members deemed less than essential need to stand up for their essential-ness, fans have a right to an "Accept no substitutes" policy when it comes to endeavors like this latest Sabbath reunion.

Ward has remained admirably humble throughout all this. He hasn't called for any kind of boycott of a Sabbath reunion that continues in his absence. But his frankness about his treatment by management sends an important message, i.e.: Fans want the real thing. I certainly know I do. Now, I can't say for sure what percentage of the world's Sabbath-fan population agrees with me. The band has gone through so many lineup changes over the years that maybe at this point, there's a huge swath of that community that couldn't care less who's behind the drum kit; they just want to go to a big festival and hear Ozzy sing "War Pigs" and "Iron Man." But without getting into some kind of "casual fan"/"true fan" distinction, I know for a fact that, for many, there is no "Black Sabbath reunion" without Bill Ward.

And I say this with no ill will, and in fact, quite the opposite, toward the Heaven and Hell effort of a few years back. What I loved about this reunion—which revived the incarnation of Sabbath that subbed Ozzy and Ward out for Ronnie James Dio and Vinnie Appice, respectively—was the respect it showed both the musicians and the fans. That 2.0 Sabbath was, as I've come to realize over the past few years—during which I've probably listened to The Mob Rules and The Devil You Know (two albums by the Dio/Appice line-up) as much if not more than any of the Ozzy material—(A) a great band but also (B) a different band, one deserving of the distinctive name it eventually earned. The message is simple: You change the personnel and you change the band. Anything less than the whole thing is not, in fact, the thing.

Now of course this principle doesn't apply in every case. Some bands can sub out a member and retain their essential mojo. (Though, at the moment, I'm trying and failing to think of an example of a truly great band that changed members and continued undiminished.) But—and I say this as a member of a band that's cycled through four different bassists over the course of a decade, all of whom have contributed vitally to the sound of the project at their respective juncture—sometimes, no one is expendable. The classic example is, of course, Zeppelin. As I understand it, the rest of the band didn't even think of continuing after Bonham died. You could argue that it's because his drumming was in many ways the band's central feature, but I don't think the surviving members would've reacted any differently if it had been, god forbid, Jones, Page or Plant had passed. There simply was no band once there was no Bonham. For a less prominent but equally clear-cut case, look at the Jesus Lizard. They did soldier on after original drummer Mac McNeilly left, but as David Yow has so often said, it just wasn't the same.

Now, again, Sabbath has been in many ways the polar opposite of one of these "All or nothing" ensembles. Tony Iommi has kept the band running for four decades, often with no other original members included. And I'll fully admit that as much as admire Iommi and respect his willingness to see the project through, I've still yet to warm up to (or more fairly, fully investigate) the greater part of the non-Ozzy, non-Dio Sabbath, of which there is a whole lot. But the crucial point here is that what was promised at the press conference back in November of 2011 was the original Sabbath. That's a very clear-cut thing, and you need all four members in order to deliver as promised. Sure, Ozzy's the figurehead, with Iommi probably being the second most famous in his own right of the other three, but a Ward-less "original Sabbath" reunion is simply not an original Sabbath reunion. Given the band's endlessly complicated history, no one can argue with Osbourne, Iommi and Geezer Butler's decision—assuming they go through with it, which they appear to be doing—to go ahead without Ward. But the message that Ward's sending is that fans have the right to see and hear what they were told they'd get to see and hear, namely the Osbourne/Iommi/Butler/Ward line-up.

Bill Ward, to me, is not like John Bonham, this towering colossus whose contribution to the instrument transcends his band, transcends all of rock & roll, really. But as The Drummer in Black Sabbath, he is a hero to me. When I think about his time feel on the verses of "Snowblind," that gloriously draggy slog, or the stoner's shimmy he busts out during the "War Pigs" prechorus breakdowns, or his jazzy ride-cymbal tapdance on the uptempo interlude in "Electric Funeral," I want to weep. (If you don't know the 1970 Paris footage, you need to sit down and give this your undivided attention; buckle up around 1:40, when Ward starts busting out those gut-punch fills during the stop-time section.) What he does is so natural, so perfectly integrated, so goddamn rocking, so integral to the flowing blues-metal magma that is early Black Sabbath. (For the record, Ward sounds just as good—maybe even heavier, actually—on the 2000 reunion video The Last Supper.) Money matters aside, you just can't separate Ward out and still pretend you're selling people the genuine article.

Ward's stand isn't a matter of ego; he's speaking for the fans as much himself. All he's saying is: A band is a band is a band. As the Band demonstrated, the songwriting is only a tiny piece of the puzzle. Rock & roll is about a sound, and whether or not you consciously notice every specific member's contribution at any given time, that contribution is part of your sense memory, part of the holistic DNA of these songs and albums that we so cherish. Band-dom is, in the end, what makes rock music rule, and when that's compromised, you don't just gloss over it. You make a fuss about it. You stand up for a fan's, let alone a player's, right to the genuine article. I think of the whole Funk Brothers endeavor, to bring to light all the anonymous session geniuses that served as the engine of the Motown hit machine. The last couple decades have in any many ways been a vindication of the idea that it only takes one pretty-faced/-voiced singer to make a song, as more and more of these "supporting players" are given their due (I think of ?uestlove's incessant championing of Bill Withers drummer James Gadson). You need cohesion; you need a team. And you forsake that principle at the expense of the music, the band—and, more crassly, the brand—the fans and the legacy. For an endeavor like this Sabbath reunion, a missing drummer is not merely a bummer; it's a dealbreaker.

P.S. I riffed on the Sabbath un-reunion in a TONY preview of this Saturday's Pallbearer show, written a week before this latest Bill Ward dispatch appeared.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Twofer: HMB # 7 / Moss Icon

Two-long gestating pieces went live yesterday. I'm happy with how they turned out.

1) The seventh installment of my jazz/metal interview series, Heavy Metal Be-Bop, featuring Weasel Walter. Invisible Oranges has the abridged version, and you'll find more or less the complete Q&A at Weasel is a great talker, and since he and I knew each other prior to the chat, there was an easy flow to the conversation that wasn't as easy to achieve in some of the earlier installments. We touched on some of the same issues I discussed with prior HMB subjects—can one musician excel at both jazz and metal? what are the core prejudices of both scenes? what about Naked City?—but we were able to go deeper more quickly. I hope you enjoy the interview.

2) A Pitchfork review of the new Moss Icon reissue, Complete Discography, on Temporary Residence, a label that has become a key post-hardcore mini archive. (They put out last year's Bitch Magnet set as well.) I'll state plainly that I'd never heard Moss Icon before news of this set dropped a few months ago; I'm not even sure I'd heard of them. But I'm passionate about the period they came out of: the space between first-wave hardcore and what came after. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to study this body of work over a long period, to hear the band way after the fact and find a way to incorporate them into the underground-American-rock timeline I've spent the last 20 years or so constructing in my head.  It's been easy to see why Moss Icon has bred obsession. I find myself wondering what it would be like to see them live. Has anyone reading this had the chance? Obviously, there are reunion shows coming up, and I hope to check one out, but I'm specifically curious about their late '80s/early '90s shows. If I had to guess, I'd say they had life-changing potential.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

A Gener by another name…

Next Wednesday, 5/9, Gene Ween plays his first live show as Aaron Freeman. I previewed the show for Time Out NY. (Click the "More" tab to read the full text.) Freeman's new record, Marvelous Clouds, is something special; for one thing, I'm now fascinated by Rod McKuen.

More soon…