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They Sat and Watched Him Writ(h)e
Black Sabbath: Forbidden
Once, long ago, there was a band called Black Sabbath. There were four guys in it, named Osbourne, Iommi, Butler and Ward, and (ignoring the shrill protests of the Steppenwolf faction for a moment) they invented a new genre of dark, powerful music that somebody eventually named Heavy Metal. Having invented it, they went on to make several albums of it. Eventually, their lead singer, Ozzy Osbourne, decided to bail out and go solo. In some chroniclers' versions, the good part of the history ends there. Personally, I like the second incarnation of the band, with new singer Ronnie James Dio, even better than the first one, and its two albums, Heaven and Hell and The Mob Rules, were fixtures of my musical adolescence. After this brief tenure, though, Dio too opted for solo work. For the next album Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan was recruited to do the singing, and this effort produced Born Again, which I consider to be both one of the worst-produced albums ever released by a major label, and also the best heavy metal album ever made, nevertheless (though I realize the second contention may be a little more controversial than the first). This incarnation of the band was only a studio creation, unfortunately, and Gillan departed as abruptly as he had arrived. Geezer Butler and Bill Ward also wandered off to other pursuits, leaving guitarist Tony Iommi and perennial keyboard sidekick Geoff Nicholls with a band in need of members.
There then ensued a period I refer to as The Lean Years, in which a series of Iommi-orchestrated albums came out that were Black Sabbath in name only, feeble, disheartening shadows of the once-mighty metal pioneers. 1986's Seventh Star found Glenn Hughes singing, Dave Spitz on bass, and Eric Singer on drums. 1987's The Eternal Idol replaced Hughes with Tony Martin, who attempted to imitate Dio so maybe some not-very-observant fans wouldn't notice that he had been gone for six years. For 1989's Headless Cross the rhythm section was junked and replaced with drummer Cozy Powell and bassist Laurence Cottle. 1990's Tyr traded Cottle away for Neil Murray. While there are some isolated moments of musical force on these records, as a whole they're pretty embarrassing. The music sounds like Iommi composed it in his sleep, and the lyrics cater to every metal cliche that, at least under Ozzy, Black Sabbath never succumbed to.
And then in 1992, to everybody's immense surprise, Ronnie James Dio suddenly realized that his solo career was basically a disaster, and rejoined the band. To commemorate the occasion, they even persuaded Geezer Butler and drummer Vinnie Appice to come back, thus reuniting the exact lineup responsible for 1981's The Mob Rules. The resulting album, Dehumanizer, sounded to me like the Lean Years had never happened, and that the band had picked up right where The Mob Rules left off and made the next, even better, metal masterpiece in their ongoing series. I finally got to see them in concert on this tour, and they sounded unstoppable.
This was an illusion. In a pathetic fiasco the precise details of which I don't care to know, it momentarily looked like Ozzy himself might rejoin, weary of his solo days. This failed to pan out, but did manage to drive Dio off, leaving Sabbath once again without a singer (and a drummer, since Dio took Vinnie with him to play on his rejuvenated solo return, Strange Highways). Martin was recalled from the farm team, ex-Rainbow drummer Bobby Rondinelli was exhumed from whatever crypt he'd been loitering in, and 1994's Cross Purposes was assembled. Geezer's continued presence notwithstanding, the Lean Years had returned. A live album followed, though why anybody would want to hear Tony Martin sing any more Sabbath songs then he already had, I couldn't imagine, so I didn't buy it.
I even considered not buying this new album. The latest lineup shuffle, Butler and Rondinelli tagging Murray and Powell again, reuniting the cast of Tyr, had about as much appeal to me as a remake of Ishtar. But it seemed inane to stop buying Sabbath records now, so I paid for a copy, took it home, and gave it one chance, all the way through.
I don't know whether they've been applying mind-control drugs to me in trace doses with each release, which are only now reaching critical levels, but on one listen I actually kind of liked this album. A few more concerned tests later, I still like it. It's not the return of the Black Sabbath of old, by any means, but perhaps, after enough meatless years, it has finally occurred to Iommi to experiment with falafel. (I stress that this is only a metaphor, not an indication of ethnic stylistic influences.)
Whether anybody but me will share this opinion remains a valid question in my mind, but personally I think that Forbidden finds this version of Black Sabbath finally developing the first hints of a style of its own. Martin, in particular, finally seems to have realized that he can't do Dio as well as Dio, and so has set out to sing in a manner that has some modicum of his own personality evident in it. I detect little touches of warmth, like in the verses of "I Won't Cry for You", the chorus of "Get a Grip", the bluesy inflections of "Guilty as Hell" and "Sick and Tired", and the pulsing hooks of "Rusty Angels" (certainly my favorite Martin/Sabbath song, and the first one of theirs I'd even consider for a ranking of Sabbath songs in general). Iommi can hardly be expected to suddenly adopt Richard Thompson mannerisms, but in a number of places on this album he lets up just a little on his usual turgid growl, and tosses in a few uncharacteristically lighthanded riffs. There are still plenty of stretches where the band is just doing the Black Sabbath thing on auto-pilot ("Shaking Off the Chains" and "Kiss of Death", in particular, might easily have been culled from Headless Cross), and I can't say that the appearance of Ice-T on "The Illusion of Power" is likely to mount much of a campaign for its inclusion in the annals of great metal/rap collaborations, but the glimmers of life put me in the mood to tolerate these things, in the tenuous hope that maybe there'll be fewer of them next time.
Gack, I never thought I'd voice anticipation for another Tony Martin Black Sabbath album.
Skyclad: The Silent Whales of Lunar Sea
Trans-Atlantic shipping caprices mean that the new Skyclad album, still unavailable domestically as best I can tell, reaches me not long after their previous album, Prince of the Poverty Line, which I reviewed back in issue 12. After having developed a small crush on the liner photo of Prince violinist Cath Howell, I was initially disappointed to find that she has been replaced for this album by some unpictured player with the decidedly less appealing name of George Biddle. Biddle proves satisfactory as a musician, though, and the band rips into another album of the world's most jubilant death metal with undiminished elan.
Indeed, the violin and the musical drive it represents is even more in evidence here than on Prince. Guitarists Steve Ramsey and Dave Pugh seem determined to prove that their instruments can get people up and dancing just as effectively as the fiddle, and so the whole album careens along at a giddy break-neck pace. The inclusion of a straight Celtic dance piece, "The Dance of the Dandy Hound", as the inevitable unbilled 12th track is not insignificant; there have been a number of Celtic-Rock albums before this, but this is the first Celtic-Metal album in my awareness (unless you count my fictional Irish metal band Helfast, whose album St. Patricide I still hope to record some day).
In addition to breaking new ethno-metal ground, this album also may have the most overwhelming preponderance of clever lyrics ever committed to a metal record. How can I ever heap satisfactory praise on a metal band with the aplomb to start a song called "Brimstone Ballet" with the lines "'Though I may seem callous' cried old Thomas Malthus, / 'Paupers are better off dead.'"? What award is not plainly earned by "Art Nazi"'s chorus opening "Twist the truth -- then twist your arm, / It's the Emperor Caligula School of Charm"? (Never mind the song's ringing tagline, "I'm sick of eating shit -- can I try another flavour?"!) Doesn't "While young boys drown in seas of poison -- / We are the plagiarists of breath" have a poetic urgency to it? Did somebody before them say "Only dead fish float with the stream"? If a metal band can muster the courage to say "A systemized autocracy of authorized burocracy / Seem to have our people by the throats", would anybody stoop to quibble over their spelling "bureaucracy" with an "o"? What about the flamboyantly bleak "If life is sweet -- then I'm diabetic; / The future looks rosy -- I just went colourblind."?
Lest I seem sarcastic, I'll stress that I really am genuinely in awe of this album's simultaneous lyrical ambition and whimsy. "Brimstone Ballet", despite the hilariously forced rhyme about Malthus, is a withering attack on the manipulation of society by organized Christianity. "Another Fine Mess" is a sort of modern Mediterranean cruise-ship version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with the whole band in the title role, and I think explains the album's name as a slurred mispronunciation of "The Silent Wheels of Lunacy". "Turncoat Rebellion" is as harrowing a portrayal of English working-class stasis as anything by the Jam, complete with the picturesquely English mention of "Tuggers of forelocks -- doffers of caps". "Desperanto (A Song for Europe)" (an ingenious title in itself) is a disillusioned critique of "unified" Europe, and yet it also finds time to become the first rock song to make correct grammatical use of the word "poltroon".
Paradise Lost: Draconian Times
Tell me a band is progressive metal, and I'm sold. I fully expect to get burned by this foolish blind trust one of these days, but Paradise Lost lives up to the description. They're not as fast as Anacrusis, as ornate as Queensryche/Fates Warning/Dream Theater, as melodic as Skyclad, as crazed as Thought Industry or Watchtower, or as slow as Solitude Aeturnus, but if you can picture the empty space in the middle of all of those, that's about where Paradise Lost works. Nick Holmes' vocals are about half-growled, half-sung, giving the band some death-metal edge without wholly plunging them into the illegible abyss of barking that can beckon. Guitarists Gregor Mackintosh and Aaron Aedy crunch along fast enough to bang your head in time, but not so fast that you collapse from whiplash before working up a good concussion. The only problem with this album, especially if you listen to it right after Skyclad, is that it's relatively low on memorable highlights. Everything has a good metal charge to it, but it's as if when they mastered the album they accidentally muted the guitar solo tracks or something. There aren't enough parts that rise above the overall flow and stick in my mind. If there can be such a thing as an album of real heavy metal background music, then this may be it, and while that may not have the conventional ring of compliment, I actually do like the idea. This is probably the closest thing in my experience to the nonexistent genre I frequently joke about starting, ambient-metal.
The other way of looking at it, of course, is that this is an incredibly solid band in painful need of a sonic gimmick (the exquisite "Special Edition" package design and typography, and Holly Warburton's breathtaking painting-over-photograph collage-illustration inside don't count). Give them a violinist, maybe. What's Cath Howell doing these days?
Gamma Ray: Land of the Free
While American metal tastes have, under the influence of grunge, migrated toward the more abrasive subgenres, Europeans have maintained a fondness for the more florid, theatrical persuasions, bands that still owe as many debts to Queen as to Metallica, to Iron Maiden as to AC/DC. Gamma Ray, the band formed by guitarist Kai Hansen after his departure from the extremely overblown Helloween, are one of the true defenders of cheesy, Euro-style pop metal. Hansen used to handle only a small share of the vocal chores, but the absence of singer Ralph Scheepers from Land of the Free finds Kai taking all lead vocals here for the first time. He does a fine job, but part of Gamma Ray's goofy charm on their prior albums definitely involved Scheepers shriller singing. Otherwise the cast is unchanged from 1993's Insanity and Genius, and musically the album is very much what I've come to expect from a Gamma Ray record: bombastically operatic gyrations, manic tempo shifts, blazing dual guitars from Hansen and Dirk Schlachter, melodies applied with all the subtlely of icing on a marzipan torte, and a set of rousingly Nordic texts mostly constructed from stirring phrases like "for all eternity", "the quest is drawing near", "our fight is to be free", "marching through hell", "united we stand", "the walls are falling", "we're the last survivors", "the saviour is calling" and "let my heart fly free towards a better day". If you like this sort of thing, there's little enough of it around that you'll want this. If you're new to Gamma Ray, though, or not sure, I'd start with the 1991 album Sigh No More instead, as it has both my favorite Gamma Ray song, "(We Won't) Stop the War", and their two most joyously silly moments, the idiotic "Rich and Famous" and the hilariously self-referential "Countdown".
Cirith Ungol: Frost and Fire / King of the Dead
Just a few words about these last two, a couple two-albums-on-one-CD reissues of obscure old metal. I really have no idea when these two Cirith Ungol albums were released originally. The only copyright dates on this CD are two 1977 dates for the cover paintings, but I happen to know that this refers not to these albums, but to the date of the DAW Books paperback edition of Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone series that both covers originally appeared on. The albums must be from about then, though, judging from the style and production. Most of Frost and Fire, save the improvised-without-sufficient-rehearsal guitar jam "Maybe That's Why", sounds for all the world like somebody decided to make a whole band out of only the most metallic 10% of Rush's "The Fountain of Lamneth". King of the Dead sounds like this recipe has seen the addition of a few educational playings of Black Sabbath's Master of Reality, and somebody has nudged up some of the bass-related sliders on the master EQ. This half's folly is the guitar-synthed-to-sound-sort-of-like-a-harpsichord "serious" piece, "Toccata In D-minor", which provides a good object lesson about how much harder actual "classical" music is than your average tight-pants-wearing heavy metal guitarist really understands. Period piece only, and pushing at the acceptable limits of "shrill" at that.
Angkor Wat: When Obscenity Becomes the Norm...Awake! / Corpus Christi
Ex-Angkor Wat guitarist Danny Lohner is now in Nine Inch Nails, and somebody else from Angkor Wat is now in Skrew, so it's fitting that this CD sounds very much like the roots of some of today's industrial aggression. When Obscenity Becomes the Norm...Awake! is nine tracks of flat-out speed-metal with incoherent shouted vocals, respectable as such things go, and sometimes better than that. Corpus Christi starts to sound a little more industrial in places, especially in the remixing of "Innocence" and the deliberately distorted vocals of "Schizophrenic Storm", but on the whole the vocals are even worse than on ...Awake, and murkier production tends to make Dave Nuss' drums blur in an unfortunate way. One of the few bright spots is the relentless epic "Ordinary Madness", on which some acoustic guitar and piano provide much-needed timbral variety, and small doses of not entirely unwelcome musical structure.
Still, if you need noise, this CD does have almost 77 minutes of it.
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