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.