Thursday, July 26, 2012

Top American Metal Bands of All Time

I am always shocked when I hear my fellow American metalheads wishing that they had the European metal scene around them instead of the American one. The legacy of American metal is rich and varied as any mainland European country, and it continues to thrive to this day, both with countless unknown, underground artists, as well as some of the most well-known and influential ones. Below are ten of the most important and essential American metal acts for understanding the metal scene in the good old U.S. of A.

#10 Cannibal Corpse
Cannibal Corpse - Photo
Disgusting. Perverse. Horrifying. These are all words that can accurately used to describe Cannibal Corpse's gore-splattered style. Obsessed with serial killers, sexual perversion, and horror movie imagery, Cannibal Corpse made a name for themselves through sheer shock value. And their shtick worked, too, as they are the highest-selling death metal band of all time. Love them or hate them, you have to give props to these guys for carving out some modicum of financial success in a genre of purely underground appeal.


#9 Manowar
Manowar - Photo
Manowar receive tons of criticism from metalheads for their cheesy style and generally appalling lack of any self-awareness whatsoever. That said, let's not forget that they are one of the pioneers of the genre in America, having formed all the way back in 1980--a time when only the perversion known as hair metal could be found in the States. No matter how many layers of cheese Manowar have slapped onto their music and image over the years, they've always remained true to the metal spirit and they deserve tons of respect for that. It's also worth mentioned that vocalist Eric Adams is among the greatest the genre has ever seen, and that alone makes them worthy of this list.

#8 Slayer
Slayer - Photo
Though not the most talented band on this list, Slayer's contribution to the metal scene is overwhelming when you view the scene as a whole. When they released Reign in Blood in 1986, metal as a genre took another huge leap forward--a mere four years after doing the same thanks to Metallica's debut album. Suddenly, metal became an arms race to see who could push the genre to heavier, darker, and more taboo regions than any that came before. As a result, extreme metal came into existence, consisting of subgenres like black and death metal. But without Slayer to push that envelope a little bit further, that evolution of the genre would not have started when it did.


#7 Death
Death - Photo
The seminal band of the Tampa death metal scene, Death was simply continuing the journey towards heavier, more aggressive music than had ever been heard before. That trend was started by Metallica on Kill 'Em All and then continued by Slayer on Reign In Blood. What Death did, though, was take that defining step from thrash into death metal. With their faster, more downtuned sound, and harsher vocals, Death were setting themselves up to be imitated endlessly by younger bands of the genre for the next twenty-five-plus years and counting. Had Chuck Schuldiner not tragically died in 2001, Death would probably still be going strong today. All death metal artists owe their sound to him, and his legacy will not be soon forgotten. Rest in peace, Chuck.

#6 Iced Earth
Iced Earth - Photo
Easily the most unique band on this list; no band before or since has ever sounded quite like Iced Earth. Early on they were defined by their blending of Master of Puppets-style thrash with Painkiller-like vocals and melodies. It was then that Jon Schaffer showed himself to be a riff master above all riff masters, establishing himself as the greatest rhythm guitarist of all time. Constant lineup changes has taken it's toll on the band at times, but the continual influx of new talent also seems to have kept the creative juices flowing for the most part. Overall, it's hard to find a band that has been as consistently great as Iced Earth have been over the last twenty years.

#5 Dream Theater
#4 Symphony X
Dream Theater - Photo

Symphony X - Photo


Much like the next two entries, it makes more sense to compare these two bands in order to understand where they ought to rank in comparison to each other and the other bands on this list. At first glance, it seems no contest and that Dream Theater should be ranked higher. After all, they've been around longer, they are probably the most essential band for understanding what prog metal is, and the number and size of the accolades heaped upon the band--both on individual members and on the band as a whole--by critics, fans, and the music industry itself is without equal in the world of metal.

How, then, can Symphony X be ranked higher? Simply put, no band since the mid-eighties has had a run of albums like Symphony X's last six releases. Even more astounding: those six releases have spanned fifteen years, which marks an unrivaled run of excellence. Between the guitar fireworks of Michael Romeo, the world-shaking vocals of Russell Allen, the complex and syncopated drumming of Jason Rullo, and the sometimes soulful, sometimes bombastic keyboard work of Michael Pinnella, Symphony X manage to take the cake as not only the best American metal band of the last fifteen years, but also one of the best of all time.

#3 Megadeth
#2 Metallica
Megadeth - Photo

These two thrash titans are linked so irrevocably that they can only be discussed together on a list of this type. The debate has raged virtually since the beginning; who is better? The answer to that question depends on whether you prefer a band that reached heights few (if any) bands have ever reached, or a band that has consistently produced albums that ranged between very solid and transcedently great for more than 25 years. Would you take Metallica's unrivaled and historic run of albums from 1982-86, followed by a steady but undeniable decline? Or would you go with Megadeth's nearly unbroken chain of quality releases that have spanned parts of four decades and resulted in probably four times as many quality metal tunes as Metallica?

It's a tough choice, and neither one can really be considered wrong. However, I'm going with Metallica just a hair above Megadeth for one major reason: their influence as the seminal creators of thrash metal as a genre means that they are probably the fourth-most influential metal band of all time, after the Big Three of MaidenPriest, and Sabbath. The overwhelming amount of quality music created by Megadeth over the years is a very compelling argument, though, and makes this one of the toughest picks on this whole list.

#1 Dio
Ronnie James Dio
Dio the person has earned this spot more so than Dio the band. Yes, Holy Diver is one of the greatest metal albums of all time, and the follow ups to it were pretty darn good too. However, Ronnie James Dio's contribution to the realm of heavy metal goes far beyond the music. His constant optimism, joy, and wisdom demonstrated to the world that metalheads could be more than just sweaty, angry dudes with long hair and tattoos. He showed how one could conduct himself with grace, professionalism, and charity while still being a total badass. In short: Ronnie James Dio was a true ambassador of the genre and he is and will continue to be greatly missed. RIP, Ronnie.

Honorable mentions: Savatage, Testament, Anthrax, Exodus, Obituary, Morbid Angel, Blue Oyster Cult.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Top 10 Metal Albums from the First Half of 2012


#10 Omerta Adrenaline Mob (Capitol)

I've written before about how my friends and I like to dream up different scenarios of our favorite metal musicians getting together and creating something truly special between them. Well sometimes those dream scenarios become reality, and such is the case with Adrenaline Mob, as prog metal legends Russell Allen (vocals) and Mike Portnoy (drums) team up to create something...not prog metal. This music rocks hard and in a straight line, with no complexities or experimentation to be found. The main draw here is Allen's monstrous, beefy vocal delivery, as he manages to sound like a more powerful, rangy version of Ronnie James Dio--a good enough reason on its own to check this out.



#9 Asphyxia Sangre Eterna (Maple Metal)

You might hear the distictive buzzsaw guitar tones and gothic keyboard work and instantly assume this was recorded in Sweden--probably even at the legendary Sunlight Studios where said sound was invented. But you would be wrong. Hailing from Serbia of all places, Sangre Eterna sound like Character-era Dark Tranquillity mixed with a bit of Eternal Tears of Sorrow--an impressive pedigree of melodeath to be sure. Their fresh and energetic take on the genre gives them a credibility that many of their copycat peers lack.



#8 Eulogy for the Damned Orange Goblin (Candlelight)

Eulogy for the DamnedLike a more soulful version of High on FireOrange Goblin bring the high-intensity energy and trucker speed of Motorhead and the killer riffing of Sabbath and Zeppelin. The soulfulness of Orange Goblin is noteworthy, though, as they temper HoF's bone-jarring grit with the smooth, groovy melodies and bass lines of southern rock. In the name-dropping trend of this entry, I would have to say there is more than a little Skynard mixed into this collage of styles, especially on tracks like "Save Me From Myself." In essence, this everything good about 70's music all blended together into one especially tasteful dish.


#7 Steel Battle Beast (Nuclear Blast)

Vocalist Nitte Valo sings with balls and range that no female (and few male) vocalists in metal can match. Her range is probably the most impressive aspect, as she manages Dio-esque grit and Halford-like wailing both with equal force and gusto, while also occasionally showing off an operatic soprano more typical of her contemporaries like Tarja Turunen and Simone Simmons. Aside from the vocals, Battle Beast also offer insanely catchy choruses and riffs, soulful and technically impressive soloing, and a heavy dose of cheesy (but still awesome) synth work. Other than Valo's vox, there's not a whole lot here you haven't heard before, but for some extremely finely constructed power metal, you need to look no further than Steel.


#6 Stalingrad Accept (Nuclear Blast)

StalingradBlood of Nations was a huge (and pleasant) surprise for me (as I'm sure it was for most people). I just cannot fathom how, 30+ years after their formation and 14 since their last studio album, these German heavy metal legends were able to create arguably the finest work of their career. After that, I was prepared for Stalingrad to be killer as well, and I am not disappointed. The same fire, energy, and bare-chested swagger exists in equal quantities here. Maybe the only aspect that doesn't quite stand up to BoN is that there are no instant-standout tracks like we got in "Teutonic Terror" or "Bucket Full of Hate," but make no mistake, this still an great album from front to back. Just accept it!



Rengeteg#5 Rengeteg Thy Catafalque (Season of Mist)

Rengeteg is this year's winners of the To Mega Therion award for "I don't know what the hell I'm listening to but I freaking love it!" Highly experimental, but still firmly rooted in the metal sound (in other words, there's enough heavy riffs, fast drumming, and emphatic vocals to remind you what genre you're actually listening to), Thy Catafalque manage to blend black metal, avant-garde, folk, death metal, prog, ambient, and electronic into one tightly-delivered and mesmerizing package.



#4 Batavi Heidevolk (Napalm)
Batavi
Heidevolk have returned with what is easily their best album to date. Though they still are and always will be defined by their spectacularly unique dual harmonized vocal leads, the band has really spread their wings on this recording by incorporating heart-stopping riff progressions and tempo changes, more leads, solos, folk instrumentation, and growled vocals. Probably the most noteworthy addition to their sound, however, is a newfound aggression. Some of these riffs and vocals parts are downright vicious and add a excellent spice to what could otherwise have devolved into a dull repetition of the same sonic flavors.


#3 And So It Came to Pass Dyscarnate (Siege of Amida)
And So It Came to Pass
I'm pretty sure the International Chiropractors Associations sponsored this album as a way of creating more business for themselves. Henceforth, when referring to a situation where I headbanged so much that I hurt myself, I will refer to that as "dyscarnating my neck." Hailing from the UK, Dyscarnate play a groovy form of death metal. The key in their creation of countless headbang-inducing riffs lies in their tempo; most of these songs are mid-tempo, with almost no blast-beating and only few periods of extended double bass to be found. Don't let that lull you into a false sense of security, though, as few albums are as unrelentingly violent or overpowering as And So It Came to Pass.


#2 Deathhammer Asphyx (Century)
Deathhammer
The riffs. Oh the riffs! The weight and meatiness of the riffs by these Dutch death metal legends is such that you can almost feel them thickening the air around you as you listen. This is an album that manages to be incredibly heavy without trying to be "brootal," a rare feat for today' death metal scene. Even rarer, these songs have a definite tunefulness to them as well. The secret lies in their grooviness of the bass and riff progressions, and the result is an old-school death metal sound that few can achieve and even fewer have mastered the way Asphyx have.


#1 Bury the Light Pharaoh (Cruz Del Sur)

Bury The LightPharaoh fall firmly into the classification of what I call "songsmiths;" they craft songs the way an artisan metalworker would craft a fine blade--shaping it, refining it, sharpening it, and polishing it until a beautiful and killer result is achieved. It can be difficult to quantify exactly what it is that makes these songsmiths so good at their crafts. Yes, the riffs and solos here are spectacular, but not better than plenty of other bands out there. Yes, the vocals are fiery and full of passion and conviction, but again, this is done better elsewhere. The real strength of Bury the Light is the way all these spectacular elements are forged together into a flawless weapon--razor sharp and pointed at your ear hole.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Top 10 Metal Albums of 2011

After many delays (thank you, computer, for being so crappy) and way too late for anyone to care, I can finally present my completed top 10 list for 2011. I felt this past year was very strong for metal in general—so much so, in fact, that I was inspired to expand my list to a top 20. Don’t take the actual numerical rankings of this list as being rigid. Every album from 1 through 9 is absolutely spectacular and probably could have each been #1 had they been released last year (a year in which I felt no true #1-quality album was released).

As always, the release dates I used for determining the year is the North American date (hence why Kvelertak can be on here even though their album came out in Europe in June of 2010). And now, since I think this list has already been delayed far too long, I will now cut the preamble and get right to the albums. Here they are, starting with #10!



#10 Bleed the Way Orpheus (Rockstar)

Hailing from Australia, Orpheus play a synth-laden form of melodeath that is strongly influenced by Dark Tranquillity. The formula for success playing this style requires powerful vocals, excellent production, and tunes that make enough of a lasting impression to encourage repeat listens—and Orpheus meet those prerequisites easily. Like Dark Tranquillity, Orpheus arrange keyboard lines over massive bonesaw riffs and bellowing abstract death growls. However, the keyboard tone here is interesting enough to be of note, as it often ventures into a spooky, astral type of sound that makes you stand up and take notice. Overall, Bleed the Way is an album with no real weaknesses and tons of “oh hell yeah!” moments. TOP TRACKS: Societies of Steel, Unscathed


#9 Surtur Rising Amon Amarth (Metal Blade)

Without fail, whenever a new album by a favorite band of mine disappoints me, I always end up reading a review on that album where the reviewer announces that the band’s songwriting has “matured.” Apparently “maturing” means “sucking” in critic speak. On an unrelated note, Amon Amarth’s newest offering is yet another slab of epic, crushing Viking death metal, albeit with a more mature take on the songwriting. Fortunately, even a sucky Amon Amarth album is still an amazing album by any other standards, and there is just too much to love on this album for it to fall out of the top ten. TOP TRACKS: You really expect me to choose? It’s AA; they don’t make a less-than-awesome song. Just buy the album.


#8 Ritual The Black Dahlia Murder (Metal Blade)

Like a bulldozer race on a corpse-covered road, TBDM seem to leave a gory scene of carnage everywhere they go on their fifth full-length offering. After sacrificing their trademark tunefulness for the sake of “brutality” on 2009’s Deflorate, these Michigan boys get back to the formula that made Nocturnal and Miasma such incredible albums—catchy riffs, intestine-grinding vocals, and blood-stopping tempo changes. Make no mistake, this album will destroy you…and leave you begging for more. TOP TRACKS: Moonlight Equilibrium, Great Burning Nullifier


#7 Hammer of the North Grand Magus (Roadrunner)

Ever since venturing away from their doom roots, Grand Magus have developed into a extraordinary amalgam of every good quality to come out of the 70’s and 80’s rock/metal scene. JB Christofferssen has become one of my personal favorite metal musicians thanks to his powerful, emotive vocals; massive 70’s style guitar riffing; and his ability to pay tribute to the great pioneers of the genre without ripping them off. This album is a 53-minute long lesson on metal history and needs to be heard by every metalhead, regardless of personal subgenre preferences. TOP TRACKS: Black Sails, Ravens Guide Our Way


#6 As the World Bleeds Theocracy (Ulterium)

Having grown from a one-man project on their debut to a quintet on this—their third full length album—Athens, Georgia-based Theocracy show that they are more than just a collection of musicians; they are master songsmiths. Forging songs is their craft, and they have mastered it completely despite their relative greenness. Each song on As the World Bleeds is infused with a life, energy, and purpose entirely its own, with pounding riffs, soaring vocals, and structures that are allowed to breathe and move in a beautifully organic manner. Though there are many excellent traditional metal elements here (in particular the incredible guitar riffs found on nearly every track), Theocracy transcend metal and create pure art with their music.  TOP TRACKS: Nailed, As the World Bleeds


#5 Kvelertak Kvelertak (Indie)

Taking a wrecking ball to genre walls and all preconceived notions of what metal is, Kvelertak have set a new precedent for innovation on their self-titled full length debut. The seamless and effortless way by which they move from tremolo picking to punk power chords—or blackened shrieks to shouted gang vocals, or from singing in their native Norwegian to playing screaming American blues guitar solos, or from blast beats to cowbell and tambourine—is astounding. On paper it sounds like it should be a chaotic, nonsensical mess of notes and conflicting styles, but in practice these youngsters execute it as near to flawlessly and coherently as possible. TOP TRACKS: Blodtørst, Utrydd dei Svake


#4 Blood on Snow Eastern Front (Candlelight)

This album is a prime example of how execution can trump originality when it comes to music. Though they feature a mostly generic black metal sound (albeit with some doomy interludes to break things up), Eastern Front execute that sound so perfectly that I can’t help but love their debut album, Blood on Snow. The main draw here is a crushing rhythmic attack of which even Immortal would be jealous, and song structures that are as long and grueling as a Siberian winter. Put this album on and prepare to be enthralled by the swirling blizzard of mesmerizing and soul-crushing riffs unleashed by Eastern Front! TOP TRACKS: Blood on Snow, Unleash the Panzer Division


#3 Forever Abomination Skeletonwitch (Prosthetic)

Though it is unlikely Skeletonwitch will ever be able to top the flesh-rending adventure that was Beyond the Permafrost, Forever Abomination comes pretty freaking close. From the first moment of the opening track, which stomps back and forth on your ear drums like a runaway rhino, you know these Ohio rockers mean business!


#2 V Vreid (Indie)

I’m calling Vreid’s brand of music here “progressive black metal,” but regardless of the appellation, this is some fascinating material. The root of their sound structure is black metal, but they branch out in many different directions, utilizing elements of doom, thrash, prog, melodeath, and post-metal. With equal parts of hypnotic atmosphere, head thrashing riffs, mournful melodies, musical innovation, and instrumental showmanship, this is an album that delivers everything you could want from a metal release…and more. TOP TRACKS: The Others & the Look, Then We Die


#1 Iconoclast Symphony X (Inside Out)

At this point I feel like there’s nothing more I can say about Symphony X. I have previously named their two most recent albums among the best of the last decade, including placing Paradise Lost at #1 over that time period, and I also consider their 1997 album Divine Wings of Tragedy to be one of the best albums from the 90s. All this high praise leads me to the conclusion that these New Jersey prog metallers are the best, most consistent metal act to arise since the golden days of the 80s. So when I say that this might be their best album to date, know that it means a lot. Front to back, the intensity, musical brilliance, and combined talent of Symphony X on Iconoclast is unmatched by anything I have ever heard before. These guys just keep raising the bar and then surpassing it. I’m positively giddy that I have had the opportunity and privilege to witness greatness in motion—and its name is Symphony X. TOP TRACKS: Bastards of the Machine, When All is Lost

Friday, January 6, 2012

Top Metal Albums of 2011 (#20 through #11)

Here it is--the first part of my top albums of the year list! After 12 months of listening to metal albums, I feel fairly confident in presenting to you 20 from 2011 that you cannot miss. Here's #20-11 for 2011!

#20 Infektion 1813 Endstille (Season of Mist)

Being a big fan of history, German culture, and the German language, I’m probably more than a little biased towards this album by these German black metallers, but holy crap will you listen to some of these riffs?! Not to mention the vicious, ferocious, pissed-off vocals of frontman Zingultus. The last three tracks of this album are especially amazing, and are akin to being dropped out of an Iron Annie into the Ardennes in December of 1944—your chances of survival are about equal for either situation. TOP TRACKS:  “Set the World Aflame” “Endstille (Völkerschlächter)”


#19 Running out of Daylight The Living Fields (Candlelight)

If I described these guys as “epic progressive doom metal,” I would probably sound like a pretentious prick. Luckily I would never do that. No sir, you will never see me publish the words “epic progressive doom metal” in one of my articles. Hailing from the Windy City, The Living Fields sometimes display a definite November’s Doom influence, but there’s so much more going on here than the straightforward death/doom of their fellow Chicagoans, with symphonic orchestration and varied vocal work producing a sound that is far less depressing, more experimental, and (dare I say it?) even uplifting at times. TOP TRACKS:  “Remnant” “Glacial Movements”


#18 My Blood Artillery (Metal Mind)

This album deserves to make it on the strength of the opening track alone. For my money, “Mi Sangre (The Blood Song)” is song of the year with its complex, winding structure, fire-breathing riffs, and hair-raising vocal work. The rest of the album is a bit hit-or-miss, but overall this is still a quality album by these old-school thrashers from Denmark. TOP TRACKS:  “Mi Sangre (The Blood Song)” “Ain’t Giving In”




#17 Stoned Acid Witch (Hell’s Headbangers)

Never before has this style of music been so damn fun. Actually, come to think of it, never before has this style of music even existed! Acid Witch play a blend of death, stoner, and doom metal combined with psychedelic keyboards and campy (even goofy) lyrics, a combination that is as fascinating as it is unique. TOP TRACKS: “Live Forever” “If Hell Exists”


 
#16 Takasago Army Chthonic (Spinefarm)

These veteran metalheads from Taipei, Taiwan play a blistering blend of melodeath and black metal mixed with traditional Taiwanese folk melodies and instruments. There are equal parts soaring melodies, bone shattering riffs, and dizzying blast beats present, capable of satisfying any metalhead, regardless of preference or mood. TOP TRACKS: “Takao” “Kaoru”


#15 Dissimulation Hope for the Dying (Facedown)

No one is more shocked than I that a metalcore band could make this list, but the incinerating neoclassical dual guitar attack of James Houseman and Jack Daniels (no that’s not an alcoholic joke---that’s his actual name) makes this an easy pick. That combined with stirring symphonic keyboard work makes this a far more interesting and dynamic listen than your typical run-of-the-mill metalcore album. TOP TRACKS: “Vile Reflections” "Derision"


#14 Tenkterra Obscurity (Trollzorn)

In many ways, this is the album that I wish Amon Amarth had released this year. Sporting many of Amon Amarth’s trademark sounds, such as the epic tremolo riffing patterns and vocals that alternate between death growls and a more blackened scream, Obscurity win no points for originality, but they more than make up for that by incorporating the energy and aggression that is missing from the overly-polished sound towards which Amon Amarth has gravitated. If you found Surtur Rising to be a bit too mellow for your tastes, check out these guys. You won’t be disappointed. TOP TRACKS: “Keldagau” “Brukterer”


#13 Songs for the Slain Winterhymn (unsigned)

Never before has metal been as fun as it is on Winterhymn’s self-released debut of epic folk metal. Hailing from northern Kentucky but with hearts of northern Europeans, each track on Songs for the Slain is an ale-swigging adventure of fun and epic glory. I can’t seem to reduce the ridiculous grin that I always find plastered on my face while listening to this album. Grab a frosty mug of ale and enjoy! TOP TRACKS: “Stand Your Ground” "Woad"


#12 Dystopia Iced Earth (Century)

Rediscovering his passion for making music, Jon Schaffer has crafted another extraordinary album to add to Iced Earth’s extensive and (mostly) exemplary discography. With this help of newcomer Stu Block, Shaffer manages to--ah who am I kidding…Block carries this recording with his monstrous vocal delivery, managing to combine the best elements of Tim Owens and Matt Barlow into one mind-boggling package. TOP TRACKS:  “V” “Tragedy and Triumph”


#11 Insidious Nightrage (Lifeforce)

The entire original lineup is back (albeit as guest spots) on this sizzling chunk of melodic death metal (extra emphasis on melodic). Gus G, Tomas Lindberg, Tom S. Englund, and Apollo Papathanasio all on one album produced by Fredrik Nordstrum…need I say more? If you need more reason to love this album, check out the vocal interplay between Papathanasio and Lindberg on “This World is Coming to an End.” Talk about hair-rasing! TOP TRACKS: “Hate Turns Black” “This World is Coming to an End”


The top ten will be coming in a few days so check back soon!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Criteria for assessing metal albums

In about a week (give or take a few days), I will be posting the first part of my annual "top metal albums of the year" list. I spend the entire year keeping up with all the new metal releases each week, and listening to as many of them as I can. As such, I feel my lists are fairly thorough and they cover all subgenres and all levels of popularity--from mainstream all the way down to unsigned bar bands.

However, before I publish this year's list, I wanted to lay out the criteria by which I judge the albums I hear. My lists tend to be radically different from all other lists out there, and I'm hoping that by writing out these criteria, not only will my readers better understand from where I am coming, but I can also better evaluate the albums for my list.

As such, there are four main criteria by which I judge an album: 1) technical ability, 2) innovation, 3)consistency and cohesion of songs across the album, and 4) the ability for the music to please my ear. These criteria are each given mostly equal weight, with the exception of the fourth one. I will lay each of them out in more detail.

1. Technical ability

This is, in many ways, the easiest to asses. Insane guitar and keyboard shredding, vocals with massive power or range, complex and/or creative drum and bass arrangements, nontraditional song structures, etc. are all things I look for that indicate a band possesses exceptional technical skill. Though technical talent is mostly meaningless on its own (see: Dragonforce), when combined with the other elements listed below, it can mean the difference between a good album and a transcendently great one.

2. Innovation

I think this is where I differ from many other music critics out there. Let me first say that I love innovation--without it the genre would grow stale and die off. One of the bands that will be on my list is called Kvelertak. They're from Norway and their self-titled debut is probably the most innovative and creative piece of metal I've ever had the pleasure of hearing. It breaks so many conventions and rules of the genre and yet...I can't help but love it. But, like technical skill, innovation means very little by itself. You won't find Mastodon or Anthrax on my list because their new albums are simply not any good. It's that simple. And on the flip side of that, a band that shamelessly copies the styles of bands that came before them will not be penalized by me as long as they create good music in the process. Innovation is important, but it is not the be-all-end-all of the metal scene.

3. Consistency and cohesion of songs across the album

Despite the long title for this criteria, it's actually very simple: If an album contains no weak songs, that is good. If the songs work together to create an atmosphere that stretches across the whole album and enhances the listening experience, that is even better. Doom bands really excel in the cohesion and atmosphere criteria, and to a lesser extent so do prog bands and any sort of well-executed concept album.

4. The ability to please my ear

This is the most subjective, hardest to define, and also most important criteria for me. The clearest way I can define this criteria is to say that if any part of an album makes me tap my foot, bang my head, throw the horns, or smile uncontrollably, it counts for a lot. And if a band can make me laugh out loud in joy, that's automatically a contender for album of the year. And I don't mean a happy, cheerful joy, but rather an amazed joy, where the sheer brilliance of a composition causes such a rush of emotional power that it needs to be released by either laughter or tears (or both). I find a handful of albums like this every year, and it is the biggest reason why I love metal music. The ability that metal artists have to blow your mind with the power of what they have created is unparallelled in the world of music, and is a joy that all metalheads are able to share.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Most Essential Scandinavian Metal Bands


Scandinavia. When viewed on a world map, it appears as little more than a pimple on Europe's forehead. Consisting of three small countries, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, it seems unlikely that much of consequence could happen there. And yet, for the heavy metal universe, Scandinavia has been a hotbead of activity for nearly thirty years, producing countless quality bands, and quite a hefty number of transcendentally great ones. Following are some of the most absolutely essential bands for understanding the Scandinavian scene and how it has evolved over three decades:

#8 - Amon Amarth
Amon Amarth, hailing from Tumba, Sweden, haven't been around as long as the other bands on this list, but they deserve to be here because they have arguably achieved the most success. Releasing their first album in 1998, they started as more of a straightforward death metal band. Over time, however, they evolved their sound in a totally unique direction that has garnered them massive success.


#7 - Dimmu Borgir
Dimmu Borgir (Icelandic for “dark cities”) took the primal, indecipherable noise that early Norwegian black metal was and turned it into something beautiful. Darker than Hitler's soul, mind you. But beautiful. Dimmu blended the primal nature of black metal with the elegance of symphonic orchestration and airy, atmospheric song structures, making them (along with Emperor) the masters of symphonic black metal.

#6 - Hypocrisy
A band that apparently suffers from multiple personality disorder, Sweden's Hypocrisy have moved all over the metal spectrum since their formation in 1990. Mastermind Peter Tagtren has traversed this band's sound from straightforward death metal, to a more melodic direction, to nu-metal, and then back again to melodeath. The lyrical themes have evolved as well, starting out mostly satanic, and then somehow transitioning to strange alien abduction stories. But Hypocrisy have delivered absurd amounts of quality metal over the years--powered by Tagtren's inhuman vocals, arguably the best extreme metal vocals ever--and are still going strong today.

#5 - Bathory
The formation of black metal is credited a number of different places – namely Switzerland's Hellhammer and Britain's Venom – but Scandinavia also gets in on the action with Sweden's Bathory. Their four albums released between 1984 and 1988 came to be recognized as crucial foundations for the black metal genre that would blossom in Scandinavia in the 1990s. In particular, their anti-Christian lyrics and shrieked vocals were both extremely influential to the black metal bands that would follow them.

#4 - Entombed
Entombed were the first Swedish death metal band to release a studio album. Even more significantly, they recorded said album (1990's Left Hand Path), at Sunlight Studios--which would eventually become the most famous recording studio in the industry--and created the distinctive buzzsaw guitar tone there, something that would immediately become a signature of Swedish death metal. Though Entombed quickly evolved their sound away from true death metal, Left Hand Path remains the most influential and essential album of the scene it pioneered.

#3 - Mayhem
Though there were many bands that were integral parts of the early Norwegian black metal scene (Burzum, Emperor, Immortal, etc.), none were more essential--nor better embodied the infinitely disturbed nature of the scene--better than Mayhem. Formed earlier than any of their peers, they had their original vocalist murdered by fellow black metaller Varg Vikernes of Burzum, and their guitarist blow his own brains out, followed by his fellow bandmates making necklaces from the fragments of his skull. Despite that, Mayhem have survived to this this day and are probably the most influential band of the black metal genre. Go figure.



#2 - Dark Tranquility / In Flames / At The Gates

I list these three bands together because it was together, between the three of them, that the melodic death metal, or “melodeath” genre was created. Over the years, each band evolved the genre in a unique direction. Dark Tranquility, formed first, incorporated keyboards and operatic clean vocals, effectively evolving the genre in a more gothic direction. In Flames were the masters of Iron Maiden and Thin Lizzy influenced dual-guitar leads and moved the genre in a more accessible and mainstream direction. At The Gates were the heaviest of the three, and kept the genre grounded to its death metal roots. When looking at the melodeath genre, it is necessary to view all three of these bands together, and together they make for some of the most essential listening in all of Scandinavian metal.

#1 - Mercyful Fate
Little Denmark is saved from heavy metal obscurity by this monumental band. Mercyful Fate formed in the early 80s and has been influential on countless artists, including the mighty Metallica, who often cite Mercyful Fate among their biggest influences. Vocalist King Diamond's powerful falsetto was their trademark that influenced countless power metal vocalists to come. Their heavy, speedy, but melodic guitar style would be strongly influential on thrash and speed metal. Their innovative song structure would lead to prog metal. And their anti-Christian lyrics would be a major part of the future black metal movement. All-around, there are few heavy metal bands in the world--much less Scandinavia--more essential than Mercyful Fate.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Iced Earth "Dystopia" Review

These days a new Iced Earth album stirs mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, they have produced some of the best music to have ever graced my ears, but on the other hand their last couple of albums were rather disappointing, especially when viewed in light of the rest of their discography. It seemed like Jon Schaffer had lost his passion and fire for making music. He was merely going through the motions. His heart just wasn’t into it anymore.

But then in 2010 came Sons of Liberty—Schaffer’s politically themed side project. Suddenly it seemed like he had rediscovered the fire that made albums like Burnt Offerings, The Dark Saga, and The Glorious Burden so transcendently great. The riffs were fiery, the vocals were powerful, the songs were both memorable and creative. But most important of all, Schaffer had a message he was passionate about delivering, rather than some abstract pseudo sci-fi story about an alien antichrist.
I hoped and predicted that rediscovered passion would carry over to the new Iced Earth release. There was one other positive omen prior to Dystopia’s release as well, and that being the band’s track record when introducing a new vocalist. John Greely’s first (and only) album Night of the Stormrider, Matt Barlow’s debut on Burnt Offerings, and Tim Owens’ arrival with The Glorious Burden have each marked the three best efforts by the band to date. Something about having a new toy to play with just seems to get Schaffer’s creative juices flowing. So with the announcement that Barlow was leaving the band again and would be replaced by Stu Block from extreme prog metallers Into Eternity, my hopes were quite high for the new release. And Schaffer et al do not disappoint.
Since we’re on the subject of vocalists, let’s first talk about Block’s effort in that area. I’d be understating things to say his voice is monstrous on this album. If you’ve heard Barlow’s powerful baritone or Owens’ ridiculous four-octave range then you know that when I say Block is the most talented vocalist ever to sing for the band, it means a lot. A hell of a lot. And he is. His range is equal to (if not better than) Owens’, and he manages the gruff baritone with equal gusto and forcefulness of Barlow. Having been a fan of his work with Into Eternity before, I literally did not believe that it was him doing most of the vocals here. I thought that Schaffer was finally stepping up and taking on the majority of the vocals responsibilities again like he did during stretches on Night of the Stormrider. But no—live videos confirm that those sounds do, in fact, come from Block. Incredible, to say the least.
As for the songs themselves, they are generally very high in quality. There’s a definite NWOBHM vibe on this album, often hearkening back to segments from Night of the Stormrider. There are numerous examples of dual-guitar leads that are very Iron Maiden-esque, such as the extended instrumental sections on “Dark City” and “Equilibrium.” And substitute Block’s vocals for those of Bruce Dickinson on album closer “Tragedy and Triumph” and it could easily have been a track on Powerslave. But the old-school thrash aggression also remains, especially on “Boiling Point” and “Days of Rage.” The complaint I have is that those two songs are far too short (“Days of Rage” clocks in a barely over 2 minutes) and straightforward to be very interesting.

The highlights here are mostly the mid-tempo tracks. Though Schaffer is but a shadow of his former self when it comes to writing interesting riffs—often just resorting to generic galloping triplets rather than trying to write anything creative—“Dark City” does contain some of the well-written lightning-wristed rhythm work for which Shaffer has become legendary. And “V,” easily the highlight of this album, contains a number of the best riffs on the whole album, on top of being very catchy and well-written tune overall.

Not every song on this album is a winner, though. “End of Innocence” is quite boring and repetitive, and if you have the limited edition then it is followed by the decent-but-not-spectacular “Soylent Green,” creating a bit of a lull in the second half of the album during which your attention may wander. Also, as I’ve mentioned it before, throughout the album the riffs are often very bland and generic, making me pine for the days of Burnt Offerings when Schaffer was a god of the rhythm guitar.

Those few flaws aside, though, this is a very solid album and a worthy addition to the extensive and (mostly) exemplary Iced Earth discography. Its diverse sounds make for an interesting and memorable roller coaster ride, and most of the tracks stand out on their own merit and stick with you long after Stu Block's lion roar has faded to silence. Definitely recommended.

Overall rating: 8.5/10