Thursday, June 22, 2017

Heavy metal reckoning

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

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

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

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

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

Autopsy: Mental Funeral

Axis of Advance: Obey [J. Read post]

Behold... the Arctopus: Skullgrid, Horrorscension 

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

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

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

Carcass: Necroticism — Descanting the Insalubrious, Surgical Steel

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

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

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

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

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

Cynic: Focus, Traced in Air

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

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

Defeated Sanity: Passages Into Deformity

Deicide: Legion, Once Upon the Cross

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

Dysrhythmia: Test of Submission

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

Fucking Champs: IV, V

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

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

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

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

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

Khanate: Things Viral, Capture and Release

Krallice: Ygg Huur

Loincloth: Iron Balls of Steel

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

Meshuggah: The Violent Sleep of Reason

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

Necronaut: Necronaut

Necrophagist: Epitaph

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

Pallbearer: Sorrow and Extinction

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

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

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

Sorcery: Arrival at Six

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

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

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

The wandering healer: Peter Brötzmann live with Heather Leigh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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