Shades of Black
5 · 28 February 95
Machine Head: Burn My Eyes
Want to know what heavy metal sounds like these days? Here's the album to buy. It's not quite brand new, I apologize, but I ran out and bought it as soon as I read a story about them touring with Slayer and Biohazard.
In fact, for those of you familiar with both Slayer and Biohazard, Machine Head is about midway between the two, and that's probably all you need to know. For those of you who aren't, I'll try to briefly oversimplify the current state of heavy metal, which Machine Head duplicates in cunning miniature.
First, it is fast. There have always been isolated bursts of speed in heavy metal, particularly in solos, but these days everything is played fast. Metal drumming is a marathon sport carried out at a full sprint, and metal guitar- and bass-playing are cordial invitations to carpal-tunnel syndrome. Metal keyboard playing is--hah, had you going for a moment; real metal bands don't play keyboards.
Second, it is brutal and direct. Forget tenor vocalists, elaborate costumes and hairstyles, and indulgent extravagance, these days heavy metal is pit music, played by big, sweaty, unkempt men with grim facial hair and formal bar-fight training. Vocals, to best convey the passionate working-class sincerity of the band, are shouted at the top of the singer's lungs, with only occasional gestures toward melody. The philosophy of metal arrangement is very simple: everything should feel like it's either just about to hit the listener in the face, or like it's pulling back from the last hit to wind up for the next one. Pain is real; to an extent, pain is reality. In short, if your primary gripe about being mugged is that when you get a mugging you really like you can never quite feel it again exactly the same way, this is clearly your time to get into heavy metal.
Third, it is extremely well-played. Technical prowess has almost always been critical to heavy metal, and this is as true today as ever. The fact that playing an electric guitar at close to its theoretical maximum speed is a very delicate, precision activity, not at all akin to riding motorcycles through windows or biting the heads off of bats, remains a somewhat odd irony of the style. And, although its being well-played doesn't always mean the music is well-written, this metal is often the latter as well. My guess is that the fact that playing this way requires considerable practice leads pretty naturally to the players developing some actual musical knowledge along with technical skills, with the result that most metal is of a pretty high degree of musical complexity, at least compared with most other forms of rock.
Fourth, it is socially conscious and totally apolitical. Street level common sense and intense distrust of authority combine with unflinching senses of both commitment and power, to produce the basic attitude that most people could get along just fine if they weren't constantly pitted against each other by suit-wearing shitheads, and that suit-wearing shitheads' insidious authority could probably be decisively undermined by the concerted application of meaty fists to tie-adorned skulls. Organized clergy, once the prime targets of metal's social rage, are now regarded as mostly irrelevant, accessories whose evil couldn't be worked at all if it weren't for the network of soul-sucking parents, family-values politicians, and The Media, shepherding perfectly good children into churches to begin with.
Fifth and, for now, last, it is intensely kinetic. When you see hordes of kids slamming into each other in a frenzied destructive vortex in front of the stage at a metal show (or in a video of it), they're not doing it to frighten the PTA (well, in the video they might be), they're doing it because this is music that is best enjoyed if it is accompanied by violent unchoreographed physical release. The people who claim that heavy metal incites violence aren't quite right, but it's hard explaining why they aren't, because the music really is best accompanied by jarring impacts. It has nothing to do with causing pain to others, per se, but given a mosh pit full of people wanting to feel blows, hitting each other is only efficient.
Burn my Eyes is as good an hour-long distillation of the state of heavy metal as any I've heard. Machine Head may not be quite as fast and destructive as Slayer, not quite as apocalyptic and guttural as death-metal bands like Death, not quite as rhythmic and rap-influenced as New York cross-over bands like Biohazard, not quite as virtuosic as Megadeth, but they're damn close on all those fronts, and the combination may be as powerful, or more so, than any one of those other bands. The album is relentless, and by the time the end batters in with Rob Flynn's screams of "Fuck it all" giving way to a crescendo of white noise that very abruptly cuts off, I've got one hand trying to pull on some dusty college-days combat boots, and the other flipping through the yellow pages looking for the nearest office of the revolution.
Solitude Aeturnus: Through the Darkest Hour
Solitude Aeturnus, on the other hand, is heavy metal the old fashioned way. They play slowly; the lyrics are other-worldly and vague; they rarely show off technique; they show little sign of even living in the modern world, much less being concerned with its petty mortal problems; and unless you count lumbering as exercise, none of their albums provoke anything in me that would result in even marginal weight loss (unless you count not eating). The first one, 1991's Into the Depths of Sorrow, I find a little too jerky, indistinct and thin, and not much fun to listen to, with several too many ominous atmospheric keyboard bits and long stretches in which there don't feel like there are enough notes. The second one, 1992's Beyond the Crimson Horizon, sounds quite a bit more mature (better production helps a lot), and while nobody would call the overall pace brisk, the band does finally have the insight that you can make a song go slow without necessarily having every player taunting a coma. Through the Darkest Hour seems somehow to back off the speed of most individual elements again without reverting to the first album's relative stasis. In the broader scheme of heavy metal, though, these three albums all sound a lot more like each other than they do like much else.
In fact, it's been quite a while since state-of-the-art heavy metal sounded anything like this, but it did, once, kind of. Those of you who knew Black Sabbath back in the days before anybody from Rainbow ever joined, remember what heavy metal used to sound like? I don't mean "Paranoid" and "Iron Man", the "hits", I mean the spooky stuff like "War Pigs", "Sweet Leaf" and almost all of the first album. Solitude Aeturnus sounds like the lost prodigy of a heavy metal that had more in common with medieval black magic than with drive-in slasher horror movies. Where Machine Head screams "Fuck it all", Solitude Aeturnus' Robert Lowe intones things like "Spawning dirges fill my veins", "Besieged by numbered days", and "Bathe the souls in talons". (What the lyrics of this album have to do with anything, except possibly some Michael Moorcock books, I have no idea.) This is heavy metal not of crashing fists but of shadowy monsters emerging glacially from inky forest lakes. Turgid, vague, and more depressing than exhilarating, this is a corner of heavy metal that I suspect most people, both young and old, count themselves well-off without. If those kids that killed themselves after listening to Judas Priest had been playing this, the whole neighborhood might have opted to accompany them.
And, even speaking personally, I can't say I'm sorry that most of heavy metal developed in other directions than this. More than a couple of these bands could wear on even my nerves very quickly. But listening to this album I realize that it would be a shame if nobody made this sort of music any more. Black Sabbath themselves moved quickly away from it, and never really returned (unless you count Headless Cross and Tyr, which I prefer not to), and about the closest anybody else has come to reviving the aesthetic was Soundgarden, which just isn't the same thing at all. Music like this is why they called it "heavy" metal to begin with. In a world where most metal bands get their version of "heaviness" from volume and velocity, it's refreshing that at least one band still remembers that momentum has a component other than speed. Tar-laying machines, they seem to point out, can crush you just as effectively as a rust-pitted black Cutlass traveling at warp 4 could (though it's not entirely clear to me what makes one of those ends preferable to the other).
Through the Darkest Hour finds Solitude Aeturnus making the most of having their style mostly to themselves. I feel like this album evokes their target mood better than Beyond the Crimson Horizon did, but I could see some fans with less serious interests in musical plate tectonics preferring the previous album to this. Personally, I'm dying to see, now that they've gotten going, how slow they can get themselves to go without stalling. Give 'em a few more tries, and we'll get an ambient metal album out of them yet.
Lita Ford: Black
Perhaps the only metal style more firmly out of fashion than gloomy dirges is big-production arena-fluff metal, of which Lita Ford was once the reigning queen. I got into her somewhat recently, for the sole reason that I'd run out of Fiona albums to buy. Her first several albums are very big on production, do not undervalue sex as a selling tool, and seem to possess close to no critical credibility. They've got a tall stack of great songs, though, easily several per album, provided the style doesn't inherently turn you off. A best-of CD appeared in 1992, though, and since then I'd heard nothing from or about her, so it wouldn't have surprised me to hear that she'd quit and taken up some more conventional pursuit, counting a 15-year rock career a job well-enough done. The last ICE, however, mentioned that she had a new album out overseas somewhere, and my next CD-store trip turned up this German release. The copyright date is 1994, but as with Through the Darkest Hour, I'm counting this as 1995 for domestic purposes.
My interest in this album was piqued even before I put it in the player. The cover art, first off, is extremely atypical for a Lita Ford album. The photos of her are black and white, and grainy, and make her look like a normal human, not a cyborg guitar-playing sex device. The back cover, in fact, has her playing a very normal-looking Fender guitar (one of those something-casters, I can never keep them straight), not her usual BC Rich combination guitar/halberd. Flipping open the booklet, I discover that Lita is credited impressively with "All Guitars". Could this album be some sort of musical new beginning?
On the other hand, it seems unwise to get overly optimistic about any album whose track listing turns four separate "ing"s into "in'"s, and tosses in a heart symbol, as well. Would anybody attempting to make a new musical beginning really not know better than to include a song called "Smokin' Toads"?
And fittingly, given the mixed indicators, this album is partially a new beginning for Lita, and partially more of her old tricks. I'll get the worst of the unchanged things over with first: Lita Ford is not a lyricist, and neither does she employ them. There is nothing here that I find quite as embarrassing as "Blueberry", for me her all-time lyrical low ("Smokin' Toads", thankfully, is an instrumental), but nearly everything hovers down around the lower edge of "cliched", near where it borders on "cliched and awful". The chorus of "Boilin' Point" is about par: "I'm on fire / I'm burnin' up / My temperatures risin' past the point of no return / Watch out or you just might burn." One assumes the overallocation of apostrophes to gerunds is responsible for the omission of one from "temperatures". Sniping at the punctuation of Lita Ford lyrics is petty to an extreme, though. Lita sings nicely, and plays a mean guitar; how much does anybody really care exactly what she's saying? I certainly don't. As long as I can hum along without cringing, that's good enough.
And this is an album well worth humming along to. There are several songs with Lita's usual flair (the crunching "Hammerhead", "Boilin' Point" and "White Lightnin'", and the sweeter "Killin' Kind" and "Where Will I Find My [Heart] Tonight" (amazingly, she didn't put "tonite")). More surprisingly, there are three songs here ("Loverman", "War of the Angels", "Joe") where her mellower delivery almost reminds me of Patty Smyth (from me a compliment, lest there be doubt). Overall, the songs are closer to straight rock forms than to the old processed metal of "Close My Eyes Forever" or "Shot of Poison". "Smokin' Toads", the instrumental, is actually quite nice, and only the rehearsal blues epilogue "Spider Monkeys" strikes me as better programmed out, which is a pretty high yield for a Lita Ford album, for me.
I think that, by the end, she'd achieved a remarkable mastery of her old form, and it doesn't feel like she's yet fully explored this new territory. This could be seen as a negative thing, but I think the unfamiliarity that occasionally creeps through on Black is actually an excellent sign. It shows that, instead of sticking exclusively to known terrain, Lita is willing to try some new things and see where they get her. This makes this a surprisingly interesting album of potential merit even to people who weren't previously Ford fans. It also makes me even more intrigued to see what she'll come up with next.
PS to Lita: If you want some different sorts of lyrics for the next record, I'd be glad to provide them. Every song I write seems to end up being about either science and computers or the powerlessness of the isolated artist (often both), but if nothing else they'd certainly be a striking change from "I'm a spider monkey, baby". Let me know.