Friday, December 14, 2012

Top Heavy Metal Albums 2012

1) Judas Priest- Screaming For Vengeance (reissue) with DVD

This top Rock/Metal release for me laid waste to everything "new" this year. It was nice to have the great sounding reissue, but the live dvd is what this is really all about. Never have I seen Priest so charged up and hungry in a live context. No contest with the other albums, THIS IS JUDAS PRIEST!

2) Accept- Stalingrad

I really liked the return of Accept on Blood of Nations, but for me that album was weighted by way too much filler. Stalingrad is a better album as a whole, good from top to bottom, and from that perspective their best since Metal Heart.

3) Testament- Dark Roots of the Earth

I wasn't wild about the first album back with Alex Skolnick, but this one completely trivializes any doubts. This isn't just a scathing Thrash album, it is a songwriting monster, their best in that aspect since Practice What You Preach. The lead guitar playing on this is the best this year for "classic" metal stars (don't get depressed boys and girls but yes, Testament qualifies as classic).

4) Nile- At the Gate of Sethu

Another killer lead guitar record, but besides that and a bunch of really ripping, oddly accessible yet technical death metal songs (in that iconic, Middle Eastern idiom), the title track breaks new ground in what seems to be the first Death Metal Operetta.

5) Candlemass- Psalms For the Dead

Last album with Doom Metal vocal legend Robert Lowe, and he and the band go out with a solid effort all the way around. A little too digitized sounding in places, but the songs and eerie atmospheres put this over the top. Haunting ghost yarns, told in Lowe's inimitable Sorceror-Storyteller way.

6) Kreator- Phantom Antichrist

Less of the ewww-y Melodic Death Metal influence, more of the ARRGH! type 'o Thrash. The melodicism that is here seems far more naturally integrated than on past albums, and there are half a dozen tracks that are a must have.

7) Desecravity- Implicit Obedience

Easily the hottest new tech death band around, edging out their peers by dint of their innate savagery. Most Tech Death can just whiz by with minimal headbanging. This will knock your teeth down your throat, and you'll be glad it did.

8) Dragonsclaw- The Prophecy

Best new classic Metal band, supersonic vocalist Giles Lavery's Steve Grimmet-esque soaring really helps propel this. Fans of the aforementioned Grimmet's Grim Reaper, 90s Riot, and Powerslave-era Maiden have reason to rejoice...finally.

9) Bevar Sea s/t

Best Doom Metal debut I've heard since Solitude Aeternus, the despicable (in the "good" way) vocals combine with the rawther nawsty guitar tone quite compellingly. Have a shower nearby whilst listening, it's hell getting it out of your hair.

10) Aborted- Global Flatline

When I first saw this as an album cover I was fondly nostalgic for Deceased. And the second track definitely enunciates the high, apocalyptic peoplefest concept. But the other songs, as old school killer death-grind musically as you can imagine, get lyrically cartoony in a worshipful, yet uniquely killer Carcass-ian monument. Do any of us who appreciate the putrefecators' disciples, or even young upstarts like Devorument really care much about originality anyhoo? 

11) Dying Fetus- Reign Supreme

I haven't heard a bad album yet from the violent death grinders, but this is probably their most engaging musically ever, and no they didn't sacrifice one ounce of the intensity. It's actually getting harder to call Dying Fetus grind anymore, there are too many accomplished parts from the individual musicians, plus real songs. Closer to old school Tampa (they always did have those shades of Obituary), while succesfully carrying over their state-of-the-art brand of siege.

12) Slash- Apocalyptic Love

Slash's solo album boasts some fine vocals by Myles Kennedy, but it's his stellar (and woodshed-benefitting) playing that's really on display. That is, a few really good songs, but the album is more like "dude, have you HEARD Slash's playing lately?".

13) Cattle Decapitation- Monolith to Inhumanity

Includes all the requisite monster blasting and ugly face making, but this band actually takes songwriting chances at several points on this album, consequently showcasing a very interesting sense of dynamics...there's actually an aim toward an expressive flavor to their sound, and it really makes the work stand out. Easily their best music, and keep in mind that I've always liked them. Even if you just buy this album for the maniacally brilliant first three songs, it's worth it trust me.

14) Atkins/May- Valley of Shadows

Really good classic Metal with a contemporary production, with one of the genre's defining founders and an excellent guitar performance courtesy of Paul May.

16) Cannibal Corpse- Torture
This band will always be irresistible to me. More gory fodder, but done with so much passion, overall probably their best since the masterpiece that was Kill. This album gives me a bit of the Punky fun thrill I had when I first heard Eaten Back to Life.

17) Albatross- The Kissing Flies This release is part of a split with a band that I wasn't too impressed with, otherwise I would have put this classic Mercyful Fate/Candlemass loving dynamo up higher. If you're into the aforementioned at all, you're probably going to like this. It helps too that these folks from India have enough imagination and ingenuity to keep "Kissing Flies" from being a tribute album, there are some great, epic Classic Metal songs on this release. Highly recommended.

18) Putrid Pile- Blood Fetish Who says only Black Metal bands can be one man? Shaun LaCanne once again proves both his allegiance to the old school of Death, while carving out a corrosive niche of his own. The highish screams bring to mind Deicide and CC, and there's even an almost Punk-ish vibe to a couple of pieces, but LaCanne also integrate sSlams, grindy blasts, and other elements to make this world his own. This is one of those albums that is just plain fun to listen to.


Black Country Communion's "Afterglow"- Close the Show

Both because of my admiration of Glenn Hughes' work with Deep Purple and Black Sabbath and the reccomendations of some very knowlegeable Rock fans and friends, I've given each of the three BCC releases a few listens. My conclusion is that Black Country Communion is another waste of time in a long line for a man who remains one of best musicians the Rock genre has ever known (and if you don't know I'm talking about Hughes, you need to stop reading). Put it this way, I'm glad I borrowed the cds, as I hate paying for reheated drivel.

Afterglow for me both underscores and adds further firefuel to the above conclusion. Not one of the BCC albums is much different songwriting-wise from what Hughes wrote on, say, the "Soul Mover" album, in fact a lot of it is the same from not only a structural but atmospheric standpoint, just a stiff notch down in quality. This last is especially bad news, since "Soul Mover" was mostly reheated Hendrix/Zeppelin/Purple/Wonder to begin with...sound familiar?

Bonamassa is definitely part of the problem; not in small part due to the fact that he seems to experience the same lack of personality assertion in the songwriting department as he does in his guitar playing. This makes him a far more pronounced non-entity in the Rock field than the Blues, since the former is pretty much based on aggressive ego-assertion. Every solo he takes on Afterglow...shoot, on ANY of the BCC albums, I missed out on and had to rewind later in order to make sure there was one. It's like he's not really there, if you get my meaning. The Bonham drums are about the same as they've ever been, which means they could have been played similarly by about a hundred other percussionists out there, and I'm being kind. The production on Afterglow isn't much of an improvement on the others, meaning it's bad, bad, bad. Everything sounds the same, and considering that the base itself is almost cartoonishly banal, it's high time to hang this "supergroup" up.

I can't wrap up this review without noting that Glenn Hughes' voice often sounds quite good, especially considering the recreational wear it's gone through over the years (not to mention his tendency toward the acetylyne torch approach). It's amazing that he sounds this great, especially when so many other heavy rock masters from the 70s barely have their original tone anymore (Gillan and Coverdale anyone?).Glenn always sounded best to me when he largely eschewed the Funk influence and focused on belting out the straight Rock, and he does almost as good here as he did on Sabbath's Seventh Star (the latter was in my mind the best he ever sounded prior to Afterglow).

So, it you are a fanatic for Glenn Hughes's voice and just can't get enough of the sound of ancient Purple/Zep/Hendrix (no matter how microwaved), I definitely reccomend this album. As for me, I give it a simple "blah" rating, not terrible, but not good or worth buying either. Two out of five stars.

Or, to put it more concisely, looking forward to the afterglow of no more Black Country Communion.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

J.S. Bach's Two Part Inventions

Bach's Two Part Inventions are a relatively recent discovery for me, and they are providing yet another fascinating musical journey. There is so much depth of feeling and melodic sophistication in these Inventions, so much to be learned.

I was delighted to see and hear this extraordinary interpretation of Invention #1. The harpsichord stuff at the end is extremely cool, too.


Friday, November 2, 2012

Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelungen: The Levine DVD Set at the Met

I'm writing this review as a Wagnerian that wants others to discover and enjoy Der Ring Des Nibelungen for the amazing work that it is. I feel that the best way to do this is to first see the opera in its traditional interpretation (or something at least closely approximating such), as the story's fantastical elements seem to make the work more accessible. I also feel that a dvd set might be more conducive toward full absorption of the opera than going to see the work onstage, as paying to go see the opera at the theater could be too much for the novice, and not just from a financial perspective. I personally had to start out with sequential parts of the opera, otherwise I would have been ultimately both overwhelmed and scared off by its humongous size and scope. By starting out in pieces, I was eventually able to watch and listen longer and longer, and found my attention span gradually expanding. My "bloody chunks" method might not work for some, but for me the dvd gave me the helpful option of turning off, tuning in, rewinding, etc

Der Ring Des Nibelungen is, in my humble opinion, the greatest work of art in Western history. There is no other work that integrates so many different artistic mediums, characters, and situations into such a comparatively cohesive whole. Let me digress a bit by giving going into what constitutes great Art.

My definition of great Art is that it not only inspires, but can actually make a person learn something about him or herself, and/or the world around. In the case of the Ring, the main thrust is provided by the music, but the allegorical nature of the plot, characters, and situations point toward deep, self-revelatory archetypes. In fact, it has been asserted that the truly great artists all touch upon inherited psychological characteristics in what Carl Jung referred to as the Collective Unconcious; archetypes that help connect the psyches of every man and woman, regardless of political orientation. Upon my study of Wagner's autobiographical materials, I learned that Wagner's ideas actually predated Freud and Jung by decades, and had a profound influence on his sycophant Nietzsche as well.

Like any Art, fully appreciating the Ring takes a conscious, willed effort. One has to actually learn the musical language that Wagner created. But I must emphasize that one's efforts towards comprehension will be rewarded. Just like reading Dickinson, admiring Raphael, savoring Langston Hughes, listening to late-era pays off over and over again as one lives with it, grows with it.

 So let's start the actual review:

There are two dvd sets that are generally considered the most valuable among Ring performances: this one and the one conducted by Pierre Boulez. I personally started with this one, and I'm glad that I did. It might just be personal preference, but I think that if I had started my Wagner experience with a non-traditional staging of the Ring, like Boulez's I would have been very put off. Seeing this traditional performance first helped me alot with getting my mind right with the work itself.

This Metropolitan Opera performance of the Ring has its share of problems. The middle section of Das Rheingold, as well as the majority of Act I of Gotterdammerung, are seemingly conducted through molasses. James Levine, obviously a more than notable conductor overall, seemed to fall asleep during these sections, which is extremely unfortunate considering the fact that they are the sections most in need of conscientious conducting. The outstanding performances of singers James Morris and Crista Ludwig can only shine so much when led by a sleepwalker.

Overall, Levine seems to get swept up and inspired by the rushing, "heavy metal" parts of the Ring, which is great for us Metalheads, but he seems just plain disinterested during the parts that require more care, subtlety. The exceptions to this general rule are both the excellent awakening-of-Brunnhilde scene in Act III of Siegfried, as well as the very good Siegmund and Sieglinde in Act I of Die Walkure.

James Morris' perfomance as Wotan steals the show here, he is by far the most impressive Wotan in recent history. His voice has certain idiosyncracies that refine the role and make it his own, not to mention his tall, imposing physical presence. As a basis of audio/video comparison, Donald McIntyre (from the Boulez Ring) stands up well in overall quality to Morris from both a singing and acting standpoint, but the former just can't compete with Morris' less anonymous vocal delivery, not to mention his physical presence. Morris makes the Wotan role HIS in a commanding way.

Siegfried Jerusalem makes a very good Siegfried here, though his acting sometimes puts a "duh" veneer to the character that wasn't Wagner's intent. That is, at times Jerusalem's portrayal tends to veer from the "brash, arrogantly ignorant" portrayal of Siegried meant by Wagner, to an outright, unlikably stupid dolt. This applies only to certain points in his performance, as the Heldentenor mostly does a good job, especially from a singing perspective.

From the Boulez dvd set, Hildegard Behrens' Brunnhilde is quite good as well, she only falters when she tries too hard. To be more specific, at times she seems to be straining, and not just during the super high notes.

On the other hand, both Behrens and Matti Salminen (as an outSTANDING Hagen) make for a powerful Gotterdammerung Act II. In fact, this act is worth the price of the dvd set by itself. One has to see it to believe it. This might just be the best performance of this act in filmed history, full of all the Germanic gang roars, hell-hath-no-fury scorn, subtle humor, and charismatic drollery that is integral to the piece. Everything seems to click into place with this, the last part of the opera, and it's done so well it redeems the cycle as a whole.

Bottom line, this is the best you can do for traditional staging of the Ring on dvd. I'm personally really grateful I myself started out with it. Don't hesitate to pick this up if you're new to the Ring, or Wagner, and it must be brought up that the traditional staging is going to be by far the most user friendly for the Heavy Metal fan, the costumes, staging, an emphasis on the heroic that most certainly is shared by the musical want this metal heads!

For those who want a more balanced video performance (one which doesn't hold back on either extreme, yet integrates them better from a dynamic perspective). For me the ultimate experience is to have them both.

As an important sidebar, I must reccomend also to the neophyte the Georg Solti-conducted cd set for the best overall studio performace of the Ring. And you'll eventually want the Boulez/Bayreuth Ring dvd set as well, not just because many of the faults existent on the Levine aren't on the Boulez, but because the Boulez is an often superb performance dvd on its own.

Finally, I heartily reccomend a good libretto/concordance (there's one co-edited by Barry Millington that works really well), and it can't hurt to check out some of the different perspectives on the allegory inherent within the opera. Robert Donington's Jungian take, "Wagner's Ring and Its Symbols", is interesting and often helpful, and philosopher Bryan Magee has contributed some marvellously lucid, jargon-free exegesis of the Wagner repetoire.  I myself have begun a site analyzing The Ring, though unfinished you might find some helpful insights there: This multi-experience approach is important for fully understanding and absorbing Der Ring Des Nibelungen.

In the meantime, please donate toward the release of Lyraka Volume 2 by Pay Pal to this address: Lyraka's Wagnerian Opera Metal saga must continue.

Scorpions "Longing For Fire"

A perfect example of how uniquely great the Uli Jon Roth era of Scorpions could be. Here, Roth combines a very original, almost Rock groove with strikingly beautiful vocal melodies (the latter especially notable for the heavy rock genre) and inspirational lyrics. The solos themselves showcase just how melodically oriented the pioneering Teutonic Metal Gods of the 70s were, there isn't a note out of place. And, like Michael Schenker, Roth never loses that edgy sound to his lead playing; to be specific, it sounds as though he's constantly on the edge of slipping up, a factor that resolutely separates his playing from the often robotic sound that many of his disciples (particularly in the Power Metal genre) manifest later.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Kraanium Post-Mortal Coital Fixation

I always smile when I see these over the top album/song and titles and outrageous, obscene cover art; Alice Cooper, your spirit lives on. I realize it's meant to shock, but it's more in the bah-not-scary-just-kinda-ugly-and-dumb mold. However, inside the album lives an unexpectedly subtle, invaluable sense of humor that makes the proceedings really stand out.

Sooo...guess the album title is about yet another necrophile, dumb and cliche but somehow comfortably familiar. Must be a example of how the diminishing returns of atrocity work on a pictoral level solely, because I can tell you upfront that the thought that went into this album (superficially a simply constructed piece), was considerable, and the slaughter never loses its effectiveness over the album's duration. Each listen reveals different textures amongst the at first overwhelming din, like well sketched variations on backround slaying fields. The resultant, extended dynamic range make this one of the most physically heavy, patience-requiring, yet imaginative death metal records of recent years.

Make no mistake, this is massively bludgeoning Disgusto-Slam that is supremely helped by a heap of killer-sounding riffs. The distorted sound of the guitars is outrageously pronounced (in the "good/perfectly fitting" way) and with time one realizes the often sinkhole deep vocals fit just as adequately, working within the emsemble as more of a percussive instrument than wind...overdriven timpani, once could say.

There's love and careful tribute to the greats here, like Devourment and Dying Fetus. Definite Cannibal Corpse influence as well (though naming them in this Gore Metal genre is getting delightfully redundant these days). But get ready for certain twists in the delivery of the material that will yank you out of your abnormally enthusiastic headbanging listening experience; at first wtf-ing you out, and then astounding you with the sheer humor behind the execution.

These guys know and adore what they're doing, but have a refreshingly young and opportunistically inclined creative streak, which makes this irresistible for the Slammy, WretchedGore fanatic that wants some disciplined ingenuity to differentiate each song, without having to resort to the typical Necrophagist-ian brain-spike frozen Frosty slurp genero-burp set firmly within the El Convoluto songwriting/production Origin.

There's the brutal aspect of it (something the abovementioned bands and clones seem to lose in their crazy cuckoo clock whirl of finger knotting), and my neck personally got injured cranking this; but there's also a clowning, we're-in-on-a-really-killer-joke aspect as well, and the latter in particular begs for repeated listens.

I give this 75/100 just because Devourment still owns this style, as much as Suffocation and Dying Fetus own them.