Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Essentials: Thrash Metal

In this series I select a type of metal, briefly describe it, and then link a series of songs which I would use to introduce a new listener to the sub-genre. I'll give my reasons for each song, but as a rule I try to use tracks which sound good, are representative of certain elements of the sub-genre, are by bands new listeners should explore further, and which I personally return to repeatedly for my own listening. The ultimate goal is to give an inexperienced listener a good starting point for exploring a type of metal, and as such these articles may not be of much interest to seasoned fans.

I had a tough time with this entry, since thrash is not as firmly in my wheelhouse as, say, doom is. Nonetheless, with an emphasis on the role of thrash in the development of extreme metal, I think I've managed to construct a solid enough collection that it will be of some use for developing metalheads. I will note, though, that I leaned pretty heavily on Californian bands.

Thrash Metal:

Thrash is the central pillar of the more extreme end of metal. While doom grew straight from metal's roots, the other extreme branches (like death metal and black metal) developed later out of thrash. With sharp tempos, aggressive riffing, and angry vocals which had not yet evolved (or devolved, depending on your opinion) into full-blown grunts and screams thrash metal was the natural bridge which allowed the heavy metal of the 70s to sprout the ferocious death and black metal of the 90s.

The style still exists and has in fact gone through a recent retro-revival, but it really had its heyday in the 80s. Perhaps the largest influence on its development was the ugly new heavy metal produced in the late 1970s by Motörhead, though they did not play thrash themselves. New bands began to sprout up in various different areas, taking this new-found dirty feel and upping the ante. By far the best known of these scenes was centered around San Francisco. Other countries had strong scenes as well, though, with Germany in particular making noteworthy contributions to the style. Within just a few short years, thrash grew heavier and began to branch off into more extreme variants, effectively ending its run as the dominant form of heavy music as death metal and black metal began to take center stage. Its influence remains, however, and new groups continually emerge trying to recapture the magic, or to blend it in new ways with its twisted offspring.

Master of Puppets -by- Metallica
Metallica rank amongst the all-time elite in the metal world, and are unquestionably the best known thrash band. Founded in 1981, they were one of the central bands in the San Francisco thrash scene. I didn't want to use multiple songs by the same band, but because Metallica have several albums which are all essential listening, picking just one track was extremely hard. In the end I decided to go with perhaps the most definitive song from the true thrash years of their career, the title track from the colossal Master of Puppets. from 1986. I can't recommend highly enough that any new thrash fan acquire several Metallica albums, with at least Ride the Lighting, Master of Puppets, and ...And Justice For All being absolutely indispensable. Their self-titled release marked a move to a more accessible sound, losing some of their thrash grit. It is, however, a marvelous gateway from the rock world into thrash.

Peace Sells -by- Megadeth
Metallica's evil twin, Megadeth were formed in 1983 when Dave Mustaine was booted from the former outfit. He dedicated his new band to being darker, meaner, and uglier than Metallica. The feud between the two bands has cooled over the years, though fans still debate fervently in favor of one or the other. From 1985-1990 the band produced a series of phenomenal albums, making them yet another band for whom selecting a single track was extremely difficult. Eventually, I again decided on a title track (sort of) from a 1986 masterwork, this time from Peace Sells... But Who's Buying?. That album, along with Rust in Peace, represents the pinnacle of their brand of thrash.

South of Heaven -by- Slayer
For the other top California thrash band, I've selected yet another title track. Their 1986 release Reign in Blood is widely considered a thrash masterpiece, but for my part I've always preferred its 1988 follow-up South of Heaven. The latter opts for a slower, darker sound rather than the bristling ferocity of the former, and that is best exemplified by the opening title track. Both albums are vital for any thrash fan, though.

Carrion -by- Kreator
In Germany, 1986 saw another pivotal thrash release. Pleasure to Kill, the sophomore album by Kreator, is probably the definitive German thrash album. That scene produced dirtier, more savage material than their counterparts in California. The vocals were one step closer to the distorted roars of a death metal band, the riffs were relentlessly fast and heavy, and the whole feel was one of wild, unconstrained aggression.

Witching Metal -by- Sodom
Another savage German thrash act, Sodom are often credited with directly aiding the development of black metal. Their 1984 EP In the Sign of Evil featured the beginnings of the same rasping, satan-inspired vocals and rough production that would later become black metal staples. Since then, the band has produced consistently strong material, with a few minor exceptions, making their catalog one of the more thoroughly solid in the thrash world. Along with Kreator and Destruction, Sodom is considered one of the "Big 3" of German thrash.

Stronger Than Hate -by- Sepultura
In Brazil, Sepultura were walking a fine line between death and thrash as the 1980s progressed. With a flavor drawn from their very different location, and a level of heaviness that makes it debatable whether they were still even playing thrash, Sepultura serve as a good example of the outer boundaries of the sub-genre in the death metal direction. This track is from their 1989 album Beneath the Remains, a brilliant slab of extreme metal regardless of how one defines it.

Dawn of Meggido -by- Celtic Frost
As thrash branched off toward black metal via Sodom or death metal via Sepultura and Possessed, there came a fork in the road where all three sub-genres met. It was a place where all could be seen, but none had exclusive claim. That place is called Celtic Frost. Hailing from Switzerland, they are amongst the most influential bands in extreme metal, with later bands in all those branches, and even in some doom metal, drawing on them for inspiration. This track is off the masterful To Mega Therion from 1985.

'Til Death Do Us Part -by- Exodus
From the San Francisco Bay area, Exodus played a slower, more groove-oriented form of thrash. Their influence would be a precursor to later groove metal groups like Pantera. Formed originally in 1979, Exodus carried strong traces of traditional heavy metal with them, particularly in their vocals. Those vocals, combined with the slower tempos and groovy riffs make them rather unusual in the thrash world. Though I know this claim would face a lot of disagreement, I would argue that they could at times be thought of as doom-thrash. This track is from their 1987 record Pleasures of the Flesh.

Killing Technology -by- Voivod
The title track from the Canadians' 1987 release, with its bizarrely alien feel and complex riffing, resides at the peak of progressive thrash. Voivod put out two thrash albums before this, and moved into pure progressive territory afterward, but this album represents the perfect melding point of the two in a single record.

Native Blood -by- Testament
I was trying to decide if I should close this article with a new thrash-revival band to display what the sub-genre is doing now, or if I should go back and include a track by one more classic thrash band. Fortunately, Testament's new album Dark Roots of Earth just came out a few weeks ago and it sounds great, so this is a wildcard/two-birds-with-one-stone entry. Testament are yet another Bay Area thrash act, and though they never achieved the fame of Metallica or Slayer, they are an excellent band with several strong albums in their back-catalog. Their 1987 debut The Legacy is particularly noteworthy.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Zero Degree - The Storm and the Silence

I was recently introduced to Zero Degree, a six-piece melodic death metal band from Germany, by way of their independently released 2010 full-length debut Surreal World. I immediately loved their sound, and a quick search revealed that they put out this new EP just last month. It turns out that three of the four tracks are re-released from Surreal World, so up front I should say that just getting the album is a better course of action.

Remember the days when melodic death metal was still actual death metal? Well these guys clearly do, because they've managed to inject a now-uncommon level of savagery into the music while still keeping a firm grip on melody. The triple guitars allow them to really pile a lot of meat into the body of each track, with effective layering that holds it all together nicely. There are leads that sound like they could have come from The Jester Race, and a crunch underneath that reminds you of what the sub-genre once was. The drums, as is typical for melodeath, are more about effective pacing and punctuation than really pounding on you, but they still pack some punch. The vocals may well be my favorite aspect of the music, as they really find a sweet spot in terms of harshness, tone, and coherence.

The tracks flow together nicely, featuring their own individual characters but functioning well as part of the whole. They run pretty uniform lengths of about five minutes each, putting the EP at about twenty minutes total. The material is mostly mid-paced, though it has slightly faster or slower moments.

I personally love melodic death metal when it's done right, and this is everything that is best about the style. I have nothing negative to say about the music, though as I noted above I'd highly recommend the full album from 2010 if you're looking to buy, since it has most of what you can get on the EP, plus another eight songs (well, seven and an intro).

Grade: A (album), B+ (EP)
Fantastic melodic death metal, I only rank the EP lower due to the lack of new material.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Essentials: Doom Metal

This post, as with the others in this series, is meant primarily to be of use to individuals seeking a good starting place to explore a type of metal. I briefly describe a sub-genre, then I select 5-10 songs which I think serve as a good introduction to the style. I provide links to each of these songs, and explanations for why I have chosen them. In general, I want my selections to provide a good, full picture of the sub-genre while highlighting its central elements, its important variations, and specific bands that are worth further attention. Additionally, I try to use many of those songs which I myself come back to time and time again, and which I would be most inclined to play for a friend to demonstrate the type of music in question.

Doom Metal:

Doom is the oldest metal sub-genre, dating all the way back to Black Sabbath. In fact, Black Sabbath's self-titled opener to their self-titled debut album in 1970 effectively established doom at the same time as it solidified metal itself as a genre separate from rock. For that reason, I consider it the most important metal song ever recorded. The early doom bands grew directly out of imitating that side of Sabbath's style, and then the sub-genre further evolved over time.

Stylistically, doom is most simply described as "slow metal". It's more involved than that, but you get the general idea. Drumming here is less intricate and aggressive than in most other metal, the riffs tend toward slow churning or drugged-out grooves, and the vocals effectively vary anywhere from opera to grunting. Some of the most beautiful metal belongs to this sub-genre, but so does some of the ugliest. Traditional doom is a great deal less intense than most extreme metal, but some branches of doom are absolutely crushingly heavy. Regardless of extremity, virtually all doom is slow-paced with long songs and a gloomy or depressive atmosphere. The doom landscape is less dominated by individual scenes than other sub-genres are, and is instead more about different styles that can crop up nearly anywhere. That said, when I had finished putting together all the best that doom had to offer, I discovered that pretty much everything I had in mind was from either the USA or the UK. I'm not thrilled by that, but I'm not going to exclude good stylistic representatives just because they happen to come from the same country as other bands I've covered.

(Note: Black Sabbath is not on this list, as they were never strictly a doom band, but owing to their influence on the sub-genre I've elected to link the song that started it all here.)

Death Penalty -by- Witchfinder General
Owing to the sub-genre's British origins, it's no surprise that that the UK produced several important bands in the early doom landscape. Witchfinder General is one such band, and their 1982 debut Death Penalty is a classic example of traditional doom. The title track is the best song on the album in my opinion.

Born Too Late -by- Saint Vitus
American bands also got in on the traditional sound, and one of the leading figures on this side of the pond was Saint Vitus. Their original vocalist Scott Reagers was good, but with the introduction of Scott "Wino" Weinrich on their third album the band truly struck gold. 1986's Born Too Late is one of the great classic doom albums, and the title track is possibly my favorite doom song ever recorded. It's clear by listening to them that these guys loved Black Sabbath, but their crazy, psychedelic solos and consistently slower pace help give them enough of a different character that they stand strong in their own right.

A Funeral Request -by- Cathedral
Hailing from Coventry, England, Cathedral are a bit of an odd case. Their 1991 debut Forest of Equilibrium is a very strong contender for the greatest doom album ever recorded, but after that they rapidly began shifting their style more and more toward stoner rock until they reached a point where it became debatable if they were still even producing metal at all. Regardless, their later material is still quite good in a slightly different way, while their first record is absolutely fantastic. Lee Dorrian's vocals tend to be quite divisive, as they really don't sound like anything else you've ever heard. Most people tend to either fall in love with them or hate them with a passion. This track is my favorite from that record.

Return Trip -by- Electric Wizard
Speaking of stoner influences, stoner doom is a pretty big category. While the band Sleep has taken on something of a mythical status within that particular sphere, British masters Electric Wizard deliver all the fuzzy, infectious grooves of stoner doom with a nearly unmatched level of heaviness. Particularly on their early albums, it is virtually impossible to describe their sound without using words like "colossal" or "monolithic". Big as a mountain, the bass lines alone carry more weight than most metal bands can produce with five people. Come My Fanatics... and Dopethrone are both incredible albums, but the song that I think best encapsulates them at their best is the opening track of the former, from 1997.

Monkey Junction -by- Weedeater
In the place where stoner doom meets hardcore punk and southern rock, there exists an ugly bastard offspring called sludge. There are those who claim sludge is not doom, while others claim it is. I think it depends on which of the style's key influences a given band chooses to emphasize, so basically my answer is "sometimes it's doom". The undisputed heavyweight champion of sludge is Eyehategod, but on those sickeningly hot, sticky days when I most want to hear sludge, nothing sounds better to me than the swamp monster that is Weedeater. The vocals are hostile and slightly distorted, the southern flair is there in spades, and as a bonus the lyrics are dogmatically focused on pot. This track, from their 2001 debut ...And Justice For Ya'll, is one of those songs I just seem to play constantly.

The Mournful Refusal -by- Evoken
For those times when regular doom just isn't slow and heavy enough, there's funeral doom. The American group Evoken isn't the slowest or the heaviest in this area, but they might be the best. Fusing some wonderful melody and mood with ten tons of slow-moving devastation, the results are spectacular. Antithesis of Light, from 2005, is such a good album throughout that I had a hard time singling out one specific song, but I eventually settled on this one.

Dragged to the Roots -by- Moss
So just how low can a doom band go? Well, my mental cut-off before it just degenerates into straight drone is somewhere around the band Moss. At that point, bands are so slow and so heavy that it borders on arbitrary. When I really want to experience the crushing black oblivion, this is my go-to band. If you really want to plumb the depths there are others of their ilk to be found, though I like them the best. This track, from 2008's Sub Templum, is actually a pretty modest length for this type of doom, as some such songs can be over an hour long.

Through Her Silvery Body -by- Swallow the Sun
Moving back into more commonly explored territory, we have groups like these Finns. Doom has been around long enough to experience melding with numerous other sounds, and in this case it has been fused with melodic death metal. Death-doom is a somewhat common pairing, which can fall into either sub-genre depending on the death-to-doom ratio employed. These guys use death metal vocals, but they lean much more toward a slow, melodious sound in the music itself. The atmosphere is depressing, but the material is often quite beautiful. Their 2003 debut was their best effort to date, and this is the opener from that album.

Scent of Death -by- Solitude Aeturnus
Experienced doom listeners will probably throw a fit over my choice of song to represent epic doom metal. Candlemass are the obvious choice here, but I personally think Solitude Aeturnus are a better sounding band. On top of that, rather than picking a song from one of Solitude's classic albums from the early 1990s, I've gone with a track from their 2006 release Alone. I will simply say this: when I want to listen to epic doom, this is invariably the first song I play. But enough about that. Stylistically, epic doom draws from a lot of the same over-the-top fantasy imagery and high-pitched clean vocals that can be found in power metal. The overall effect of combining these influences with lengthy doom compositions is, well, epic. Perfect for the swords and sorcery crowd.

Death, Come Near Me -by- Draconian
With all the talk of gloomy atmosphere and depression within doom, it should come as no surprise that Gothic doom is a pretty substantial force. This is doom at its most beautiful, melodic, and melancholy. Keyboards and female vocals find their way more readily into the mix, and ultimately the product is pretty much exactly what you'd expect from a name like "Gothic doom metal". For my money, this type of doom has never been done better than by the Swedish band Draconian, and I'm not alone in considering their wonderful 2005 album Arcane Rain Fell the pinnacle of this style. To close out this list, I've selected the monumental fifteen-minute closing track from that album.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Essentials: Death Metal

This is my third entry in this series. Intended primarily for new listeners who are looking for the right place to start exploring a variety of metal, these posts will focus on a description of a single sub-genre along with links to 5-10 songs and explanations for why those tracks are a good introduction to the style.

Since death metal is possibly the most over-stuffed sub-genre in the extreme metal world, this list took a lot of thought. I wanted to include sufficient material to demonstrate both American and Swedish death metal while still leaving room for a wide variety of styles and entries from other countries.

Death Metal:

Some of the loudest, angriest, heaviest, most abrasive music on the planet; old school death metal is the auditory equivalent of movies like Saw or maybe The Human Centipede. The lyrics of many songs reinforce that comparison. Fast drumming, big crunchy riffs, chaotic guitar solos, and guttural growling vocals are the hallmarks of this sub-genre. The biggest scenes emerged in the mid-to-late 1980s and the early 1990s, and they were primarily centered in Florida, New York, and Sweden.

Owing to its popularity within the metal world, death metal has been successfully fused with just about every other type of metal, giving it an extremely broad range. As such there are relatively few universal rules, though brutal aggression and heaviness tend to be a central concern for most death metal bands.

Born Dead -by- Death
Go look up any ten lists of the greatest death metal bands of all time. You'll probably see Death on every one, and I'm guessing they will be at the very top of about seven of them. Arguably the first true death metal band, and at least partially the namesake of the style, Death were a phenomenally talented and productive group who lead the prolific Florida scene in the 80s and 90s. There are droves of other strong bands from that scene, but the most highly recommended would be Obituary and Morbid Angel. As for Death, their sole constant member was the late Chuck Schuldiner, who has become something like the patron saint of death metal since his death in 2001. Their 1987 release Scream Bloody Gore was amongst the very first full-length death metal albums, but the band continued to grow and improve for years afterward. This track comes from their sophomore full-length, 1988's excellent Leprosy.

Left Hand Path -by- Entombed
A couple years behind the Floridians, Europe's most significant death metal scene emerged in Sweden. Introducing the "buzz-saw" guitar tone which has come to proliferate in death metal to an absurd degree, the central groups from this new scene were Entombed, Dismember, and Grave. In addition to the distinct guitar tone, these bands featured a slightly more melodic approach to the music. Entombed's full-length debut Left Hand Path, released in 1990, is the flagship album of this style. It easily ranks amongst the greatest death metal albums ever released. This is the title track.

World Eater -by- Bolt Thrower
Outside of the USA and Sweden, other countries also began to produce some very good death metal in those early years. Hailing from England, Bolt Thrower emerged in the late 1980s with a series of very strong albums. Rather that the more typical horror themes embraced by most of these bands, Bolt Thrower went with a Conan-like approach to fantasy warfare as the center of their image. The band's name was taken from the game Warhammer, which is a solid illustration of their vibe. This track, from 1989's powerhouse album Realm of Chaos, is my personal favorite from their catalog.

Pierced From Within -by- Suffocation
Back in the United States, an even heavier branch of death metal was forming in New York. Lead by Suffocation, the early 90s saw the development of "brutal death metal" in a scene which also played host to the bands Incantation and Immolation. These bands had a fuller, even more aggressive sound. The deep bellows of the vocalists hit even lower registers, the riffs were faster and more intricate. Basically the entire sound was death metal, plus steroids. This is a style that continues to grow today, and at this point there is a good case for calling Suffocation the most imitated band in death metal. Their 1991 record Effigy of the Forgotten is probably the most important album in this style, but I've always preferred their 1995 release Pierced From Within, of which this is the title track.

Litany -by- Vader
Poland has a strong death metal scene, lead by the colossal pair of bands Behemoth and Vader. Choosing which of these two should represent Polish death metal was tough, but I settled on the title track from Vader's 2000 album Litany for three reasons. First, Behemoth has tended to incorporate more black metal in their sound, while Vader has leaned closer to thrash territory. I just wrote about black metal, so I wanted to talk about something further from that subject today. Second, in my experience more Polish death metal tends to imitate Vader than Behemoth, so that makes them more representative of that country's output. Third, and most important, I just like Vader better.

Ein Meer aus Tränen -by- Apophis
Another European country with some excellent metal output is Germany. Known primarily for its thrash scene, Germany has also produced good music in other sub-genres, including death metal. Apophis are a highly underrated German group who released four albums between 1993 and 2005. They were the earliest death metal band (as far as I know) to adopt the ancient Egyptian themes later popularized by Nile. Their sound is a little bit mellower and less aggressive than most death metal, making them an excellent band for those who can't quite get into the really intense stuff. This is my favorite track by them, taken off the album Heliopolis, from 1998.

Night Comes, Blood Black -by- At The Gates
Following directly on the heels of Swedish death metal, another variant emerged in Sweden, this time centered specifically around the city of Gothenburg. This new style, dubbed "melodic death metal" or "melodeath", took the traces of smooth melody found in other Swedish death metal and expanded on it. In Flames, Dark Tranquillity, and At The Gates formed the backbone of this new scene, which would later inspire popular bands like Amon Amarth. While I would love to include material by all four of those bands, there simply isn't room. Additionally, some people don't really consider melodeath to be "real" death metal. Thus, I've selected a track from The Red in the Sky is Ours, the fantastic debut by At The Gates, which came at the very start of the movement and was clearly still firmly rooted in death metal soil.

In the Grip of Winter -by- Autopsy
San Francisco's death metal masters Autopsy were pioneers in the field of death-doom. Essentially, this music is death metal, but with the slower tempos and discernible grooves of traditional doom metal. The crushingly heavy results are often rather gloomy, making this the moodiest of all the major death metal variants. They can also be tempered by an occasional mellowness, depending on how much doom is injected in the mix. This track, from the group's 1991 sophomore release Mental Funeral, is my favorite Autopsy cut.

Bleed -by- Meshuggah
The highly technical side of death metal has many members. In terms of quality and impact, though, it is dominated by the monstrous Swedish powerhouse Meshuggah. Rapid tempo changes, bizarrely discordant riffs executed with flawless precision, and a totally alien sense of mechanical dis-compassion mark their sound. If I'm being totally honest, this vein of death metal has never particularly appealed to me, and I would easily rank Meshuggah as the greatest death metal band that I don't like. But that's just the thing: they are a great death metal band. Given that an entire style, djent, has developed around the core approach "let's try to sound like Meshuggah", I felt obligated to include them as an essential band that any developing death metal fan really needs to hear so they can decide for themselves what they think. This is the track of theirs that I like the most, from their 2008 album ObZen.

Fiery Rebirth -by- The Chasm
On the more progressive side of death metal, possibly the strongest band currently in operation is the criminally unknown group The Chasm. Originally from Mexico, these guys have put out a string of unique and consistently excellent albums since the mid-90s. Their songs are often longer and more involved than those of most death metal bands. This track comes from their newest album, 2009's utterly brilliant Farseeing the Paranormal Abysm, which may be the best death metal album released in the past ten years.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Essentials: Black Metal

The second entry in a series where I provide a brief introduction to a sub-genre of metal and then link the reader to 5-10 songs to get them started down the right path. These posts are intended for listeners who are relatively new to the sub-genre in question, so many names will already be familiar to experienced listeners.

Unlike my last entry, which covered Viking metal, black metal is a very large category in the extreme metal world. As such, I had to carefully balance material from its infamous and essential Norwegian scene with samples from other notable scenes, as well as covering the bases of several specific niches and variations within the style. And I had to do all this while staying true to the premise of listing go-to songs that I play myself and that I would use to introduce a newcomer to the sub-genre. Sadly I had to leave off an enormous amount of really crucial material in the process. Because of all these considerations, it is quite possible that knowledgeable readers will take issue with several of my choices, but along with my descriptions and explanations I believe that my selections will be of use to the inexperienced listener.

Black Metal:

Black metal is the dead, twisted, evil branch jutting from the scarred trunk of the metal family tree. Born in the mid-1980s in the frozen reaches of Scandinavia, it built on the over-the-top evil look and sound of bands like Venom and Sodom. In its most basic form it commonly features ferocious speed drumming, intentionally gritty production, blistering tremolo riffs, and vocals which consist more of snarling shrieks than anything else. Over time, bands have expanded the boundaries of black metal in every direction from industrial to symphonic, with varied levels of success. Some of these outgrowths have branched off and taken on their own identities (as Viking metal did at an early stage), while others remain solidly under the black metal canopy. In nearly all cases, though, the central feel of icy harshness and hostility remains a vital part of the music.

In the 1990s black metal became internationally infamous for the association of the sub-genre's core Norwegian scene with a series of church burnings and a highly-publicized murder. This cemented the sub-genre its place as the "Satanic" metal style, an image it still carries to a great extent today.This reputation is not entirely warranted, as there are even a few instances of openly Christian black metal bands (sometimes called "white metal"), but other bands have made an effort to embrace the image.

Dunkelheit -by- Burzum
What better way to start than with the most controversial figure in extreme metal? Those of you looking for a lesson on the history of Norwegian black metal will find Burzum's sole member Varg Vikernes all over the bloodiest pages. The fact that his borderline-Nazi racial and political views are of secondary consideration says a great deal. Convicted of several church burnings and the murder of Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, Vikernes only recently returned to the free world from his stay in prison. Setting all that aside to focus on the music, Burzum were an extremely influential band in the early years of Norway's black metal development, and their approach is largely responsible for the recent rise of atmospheric/ambient black metal. Every album from the early part of Burzum's career could easily be considered essential to any serious black metal fan. This particular track, off Filosofem (which was actually recorded in 1993, but not released until 1996) is my absolute favorite black metal song. The song titles from this record are often found in two different languages, with the German names being the more commonly listed ones.

Night's Blood -by- Dissection
Walking a fine line between black metal and melodic death metal, Sweden's Dissection released two absolutely monstrous albums in the mid-90s. The Somberlain (1993) and Storm of the Light's Bane (1995) both come as highly recommended as any extreme metal album can be, with this track from the latter standing as my personal favorite from their catalog. Infused with a great deal of melody, and a degree of meat uncommon to black metal, the band pulled from what was happening in their own country's metal scene at the time to give their brand of black metal a distinctly Swedish flavor. As an additional note, I'd strongly advise new listeners to avoid the group's 2006 release, REINKAΩS.

I Am the Black Wizards -by- Emperor
Symphonic black metal first reared its head in the form of Norway's Emperor. To this day, it's never really been done any better. Their 1994 release In the Nightside Eclipse is a strong contender for the greatest black metal album ever recorded, so choosing just one track from it was difficult. I settled on this one, though on another day I could just as easily have chosen any of several others. Sadly the band has not been active in over 10 years, but if I had to single out just one album that a new black metal fan needs, this would probably be my pick.

To Pallas -by- Kawir
Stepping away from Scandinavia for a moment, Greece has arguably the strongest current black metal scene of any country in the world. Rotting Christ are the obvious selection from there, but I've never been particularly drawn to them, and many listeners will actively sidestep that group because of their distasteful name. Varathron released possibly the best Greek black metal album to date, a 1993 record entitled His Majesty at the Swamp. However, in an effort to highlight something a little more recent I have selected my favorite song from 2008's Ophiolatreia by the criminally underrated Kawir.

Pád Modly -by- Master's Hammer
Rising from the primordial ooze of the black metal world, back before the 2nd Wave, as Norway's major scene is often called, there were black metal bands scattered around Europe. Master's Hammer hailed from Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) and began recording as early as 1987.  Their 1991 album Ritual provides a good sample of the early world of black metal in Eastern Europe, where it has quietly fermented over the years to form pockets of bands throughout the region's former Soviet states.

A Blaze in the Northern Sky -by- Darkthrone
When I am asked to describe black metal in its most fundamental form, Norway's Darkthrone are invariably at the center of my explanation. The band epitomizes everything that is at the core of the black metal, which is pretty interesting considering they began life as a death metal band. But in 1992, 1993, and 1994 the band released their "unholy trinity" of records which still stand at the very heart of black metal's sound. This is the title track from the first of those three records. The other two albums, respectively, are Under a Funeral Moon, and Transilvanian Hunger. If you want to see basic black metal, stripped of all its trimmings and standing alone and ugly in the bleak northern desolation, these three records are your ticket.

Sorgens Kammer - Dell II -by- Dimmu Borgir
If Darkthrone is black metal without any fancy decorations, then Dimmu Borgir is a blue spruce in December with a dozen strings of lights, scores of shiny colored balls, and a big golden star on top. The world's most popular black metal band is everything that purists hate, with sparkling production and melodies written to please rather than repulse. Though sellouts they may be, they really aren't so bad as many black metal enthusiasts would have you believe. More importantly for new listeners, their sound is far more accessible than that of many of the entries on this list, making them an effective gateway band. Thus, if you're curious but you just can't seem to get into some of these other bands, Dimmu Borgir can be useful for easing the transition into the sub-genre's more abrasive reaches. This track comes from Stormblåst MMV, which they released in 2005.

Equimanthorn -by- Bathory
In 1987, Swedish legends Bathory released the most influential black metal album ever recorded. Members of the core Norwegian bands have openly admitted that this single record, Under the Sign of the Black Mark, provided the framework around which they each built their own sound. There is always some room for debate as to what exactly the first recording of a specific style is, since the process is one of gradual evolution and the exact defining line can be hard to draw at times. There is very little dispute that Bathory were the first band to record a genuine black metal album (just as they would later pioneer Viking metal), but at what point their early work crossed over from harsh thrash territory into genuine blackness is an item of constant debate. Personally, I'd identify this, their third record, as the first fully developed and clearly recognizable black metal album in their (or any) catalog. Regardless of one's exact conclusion on that front, this album is black gold, as it were. In order to avoid blurring the line with my Bathory selection on my last list, I selected Equimanthorn as an excellent display of the faster and harsher end of their sound.

Solarfall -by- Immortal
Once more to Norway. At the risk of beating a dead horse, the 1990s Norwegian scene really was the big one in this sub-genre. Several bands like Mayhem, Satyricon, and Enslaved just couldn't be crammed into this small space. They are all worth looking into as well, but I just couldn't leave Immortal as nothing but a footnote. Of the groups that arose in that country in the early 90s, relatively few continued to be productive and effective for very long. Immortal managed to keep a good head of steam for roughly a decade, though, by shifting their emphasis over time from blistering speed to epic atmosphere. This track, from 1999's At The Heart of Winter, displays the latter style at its best.

Pillars of Mercy -by- Absu
Rounding things out, a very healthy black metal scene has developed over the years in Texas. Many of these bands have a distinctly blazing-wasteland vibe in lieu of the more typical cold feel. That's not particularly true of Absu, but they stand tall as the titans of Texas black metal, so that's okay. The band has drifted through some death and thrash sounds over the years, often carrying traces of those with them as they go on to other recordings, but it is in the black metal arena that their strongest efforts lie. Their 2001 album Tara, to which the selected track is the first full song, stands as possibly the best black metal album to come out of the United States to date.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Essentials: Viking Metal

I was thinking last night about how, despite all the different stuff I have to listen to, when I'm in the mood for a particular type of of music I tend to go back over and over to the same few songs. Most of us probably do that. It got me thinking, though, about what songs I would pick out if I had just a few tracks to introduce a prospective new listener to a specific variety of metal. There are of course several things to consider. Is the song representative of the style I want to illustrate? Is it by a band that I'd like to make the listener aware of to help guide their further exploration of the sub-genre? And of course, does the song sound good, allowing the style to put its best foot forward?

These considerations lead me to the creation of this list, and I intend to follow up with several others in a similar vein. These articles will probably not be of much interest to the seasoned metal listener, but if somebody finds themselves looking for a good starting place for exploring a specific style of metal then these will hopefully point you in the right direction.

For this and each subsequent list, I will select and briefly describe a metal style or sub-genre. I will then pick 5-10 songs from that sub-genre, provide links to them, and give a short explanation for why I chose each song. I was listening to Viking metal when I decided to do this, so I have elected to make that the subject of my first entry.

Viking Metal:

This is a close relative to black metal, pagan metal, and folk metal. Many will contend that it does not even warrant its own distinct classification. I disagree, but that is an argument for another time. Regardless, many bands from within this sphere cross boundaries and blur the lines between the individual members of this branch of the metal family tree.

Most Viking metal focuses on creating an epic atmosphere. The base of the style is rooted in black metal, with sometimes rough production and a tendency toward coldly harsh guitar and vocals. The music is usually slowed down somewhat, though, with song lengths that are often excessive by most standards. Individual tracks frequently surpass the 10-minute mark. Keyboards, Scandinavian folk instruments, sound samples (typically of horses, waves, or clashing weapons), and chants are often added on top of that base to form something like the imagined soundtrack to a Viking voyage or an epic battle. Bathory pioneered the style with a trio of fantastic albums from 1988 to 1991, and Viking metal has continued to pick up steam and gain popularity over the years since then.

(Note: Amon Amarth are popularly considered a Viking metal band, but they do not play Viking metal. Stylistically they are actually a melodic death metal band with Viking-themed lyrics. They are an excellent and immensely entertaining band, but I have excluded them from this list for the purpose of accuracy.)

One Rode to Asa Bay -by- Bathory
As I said, Bathory were the pioneering Viking metal band, and it's never a bad idea to start at the beginning. Their 1990 effort Hammerheart still stands, in my opinion, as the best Viking metal album ever released. This is the closing track from that album (excluding a brief outro), and it's the only song for which Bathory ever recorded a music video. On a personal note, it's also my favorite metal song of all time.

Kampen -by- Windir
I remember years ago when I was part of a message board conversation and somebody asked "What exactly is Viking metal?" The response, repeated by many other posters, was simply "Windir". In their nine years as an active band, Windir established themselves as titans of the Viking metal world. Sadly, their core member Valfar died at the tragically young age of 25, and the band subsequently dissolved. I suppose freezing to death in the mountains of Norway is a pretty metal way to go, but it was still a tremendous loss. I personally feel that their 1999 release Arntor best captures the core atmosphere of the Viking metal sound, and this is my favorite track from that album.

Heathen Throne -by- Ensiferum
Ensiferum are a more polished sounding group. Their lack of genuine grit makes them less of a purist's band, and many of their fans abandoned them after the departure of their original vocalist Jari Mäenpää in 2004. In terms of enjoyability, though, few bands within the style have ever been their match. I was tempted to pick a song from one of their first two albums (the ones Jari appeared on), but instead I selected the best track from 2009's From Afar because I believe it represents the best of Viking metal in its current state.

Kylän Päässä -by- Moonsorrow
Moonsorrow are a band who can produce genuinely gorgeous music. The intro to their phenomenal 2001 release Voimasta Ja Kunniasta is a perfect illustration of that. I elected instead to offer up what I feel is the best complete song from that record, though like Hammerheart and Arntor, I would strongly recommend that any developing Viking metal enthusiast listen to the entire album. Their sound is less enthusiastically energetic than Ensiferum's, but they capture a classically informed level of beauty like no other Viking metal band.

Roman Land -by- Falkenbach
Falkenbach, a German one-man project, produces the closest thing to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack that you're likely to find in metal. On the plus side, this means they often succeed in capturing an epic feel, but on the other hand some listeners may find them boring or overly repetitive. Roman Land, from their 2005 album Heralding - The Fireblade, is actually not an especially long song. By Falkenbach's standards it's fairly lively, and it provides an enjoyable gateway to their sound.

Mjölner -by- Thyrfing
Sweden's Thyrfing have, in my opinion, never quite garnered the level of attention they deserve. In my mind, they rank amongst the Viking metal elite. Though Vannesinnesvisor is often cited by fans as their best album, I have always had a personal affinity of its immediate predecessor, Urkraft, from 2000. I had a hard time picking a specific song by them, since they have good overall material but few stand-out tracks. I eventually settled on the opener from Urkraft, since it's a good way to introduce a band I really wanted to include.

En Fallen Fader -by- Månegarm
If I had to pick a single Viking metal band that has been the most consistently excellent for the longest time, I would give the nod to Månegarm. The band are all very talented musicians, and rather than simulating folk instruments like many bands in this vein, they use the real things. Apart from an all-folk EP, their sound tends to stay more firmly rooted in black metal harshness than many Viking metal groups, which makes them a good way for black metal fans to bridge the gap. They have also constantly grown and improved, with their finest hour coming in 2007, over a decade after their formation, with the brilliant Vargstenen. This track is my personal favorite off that highly-recommended album.

Lord of the Seas -by- Nomans Land
These guys are my wild-card selection. The Russian group is a bit on the corny side, even for Viking metal. They are a lot of fun to listen to, though, and they are not as well known as they probably deserve to be. Despite sounding a little like it belongs in a Legend of Zelda game, I have deeply enjoyed this particular track for years. It comes from Hammerfrost, their best album in my opinion, which came out in 2005.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Thy Darkened Shade

As promised, the link to my newest guest review on Full Metal Attorney can be found here.