Like Disney Land, Except There's Way More Nudity
110 · 6 March 97
various: Identity 3...D!
I've gone through three distinct metal phases. The first, when I was about fifteen, evolved slowly out of the nagging suspicion that somebody, somewhere, was playing music that was more aggressive than my Dallas FM radio diet of "The Long Run", "Big Shot", "We Are the Champions" and "Hold On Loosely". I still remember bringing home Toto's first album and thinking, "Man, this is the hardest rock I've ever heard", an admission that was mercifully superseded by my eventual discovery, after a stepwise exploration through Foreigner, Boston and Rush, of Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult. At that age, though, my record buying was tightly constrained by my budget, so there was little incentive for exploration, which could only add to the list of things I couldn't afford to purchase, and my travels in the genre were thus mostly limited to the well-traveled Judas Priest - Saxon - Iron Maiden - AC/DC - Deep Purple - Rainbow path.
Then came New Wave, and I was distracted for a few years. By the time I got interested in metal again, it was 1988, and although my gross fiscal situation was only marginally improved, Adams House was just across Mt. Auburn street from Underground Records, where the bins of $.99 promos and cut-outs teemed with anonymous metal bands. It is this painful reach-exceeds-grasp phase of my record-collecting life I have to thank for some of the most dreadful items in my collection, perhaps epitomized by the appalling 1986 Keel schlock-metal album The Final Frontier, for which I wrote the shortest album review I've ever managed (In its entirety: "Keel covers 'Because the Night' here. I keep this record in case anybody ever claims that something else is the worst cover ever recorded."). One of my trawls, however, yielded a copy of The Best of Metal Blade, Volume 2, and although this double album made a compelling case for the application of the "90% of everything is crap" rule at a lower level than is usually statistically appropriate, the subset of the state of the art of metal it presented was at least coherent and cohesive, and it and its companion volumes became for me landmarks to navigate by, albeit sometimes away from, rather than towards. Not all of the things I liked then have aged well, predictably enough (I'm hard-pressed to explain why I once thought Hallow's Eve's "Lethal Tendencies" was a masterpiece, for example, and I have difficulty listening to Savatage's Hall of the Mountain King with a straight face unless I'm actually reading through old D&D modules at the time), but Metal Blade compilations led me, directly or indirectly, to Slayer, Celtic Frost, Voivod, Megadeth, Metallica, Anthrax and Metal Church, who became the second core of my heavy metal collection.
And then, unexpectedly, heavy metal sort of died. Metallica turned hard-rock, Voivod starting writing melodies, Celtic Frost self-destructed, Slayer started repeating themselves, and one week Body Count was played on Yo! MTV Raps, Headbangers' Ball and 120 Minutes three nights in succession, and I knew the end had arrived. So much of heavy metal had been absorbed into other styles that the genre, as an independent thing, seemed to have effectively dissolved. My third metal phase thus involved a lot more burrowing in the margins; Dream Theater spearheaded a small resurgence of the Queensryche - Fates Warning school of progressive metal, somewhere in the gloom around Death/Speed/Black Metal I came across Skyclad, Anacrusis and Thought Industry, and a bit of European glam-metal nostalgia resulted in my buying a bunch of Helloween and Gamma Ray records, but none of this seemed to me to refute the contention that metal, to the extent that we mean something different by that than what Rage Against the Machine does, was basically defunct. My year-end lists for 1994-96 contain nothing I would classify as metal, and while it's presumptuous, I realize, to claim that this reflects on the genre, rather than just on my own tastes, I'm going to do it anyway.
But if, as my daily replays of Eight Arms to Hold You keep suggesting, this is the season for popularly-neglected styles to stage triumphant returns, then perhaps metal is due for one, too. The occasion for this thought, in keeping with my collegiate experiences with Metal Blade, is again a label compilation, this time from the blandly corporate-sounding Century Media. As was the case with the Best of Metal Blade series, Identity 3...D! and its two precursors are pure sales-device samplers that make no attempt to justify themselves as albums on any other grounds. This capacity 74-minute installment, list-priced at the exuberantly nominal $3.98 (the enclosed mail-order catalog offers the first two volumes for $2 each) contains one song each by eighteen of the label's bands. With one exception, all the songs included are album tracks from the bands' latest offerings; the disc's use-model is clear: buy it cheap, listen to it a couple of times, buy the actual albums that have the songs you like, and then use the collection as a spare jewel-case. Think of this as a sort of random-access pay-radio show.
And as with the Metal Blade records, the thing I find so encouraging about this album is not that I like all of it, but that it's all plausible, and it doesn't all sound the same. Several bands are florid, macabre and semi-progressive (Sentenced, Moonspell, Samael, Iced Earth), a few are dire and ghoulish (Morgoth, Arcturus, Grave), a couple gloomy and brutish (Nevermore, Turmoil). There's speed-thrash (My Own Victim, Rotting Christ), Sabbath during a laryngitis epidemic (Eyehategod), Sabbath after the vaccine (Chum), a couple bands with rap/crossover leanings (Stuck Mojo, Merauder), one (Strapping Young Lad) that rivals Thought Industry for sheer berserker abandon and one (Trouble) that I think actually appeared on those old Metal Blade samplers, too. I only bought three albums after listening to this, myself, but it was easily worth $1.33 each to find out about them, and if eighteen bands are enough to constitute a reborn genre, then liking one band in six bodes impressively well for it.
Strapping Young Lad: City
The first CD Identity sold me was this one, the second album from Devin Townsend's deranged pseudonymous solo project Strapping Young Lad. The first time I encountered Devin, flipping idly past MTV one night in 1993, he was stalking onto the set of a maniacal Vai video looking like a cross between a low-ranking Road Warrior marauder and a robot animated by a hung-over Tim Burton. The song, "Down Deep Into the Pain", had the mesmerizing allure (and many of the aural characteristics) of a high-speed automobile accident, and Townsend's writhing, spectral vocal performance sounded like it had been elicited under torture. The rest of the album (Vai's Sex & Religion), sadly, didn't take nearly as arresting advantage of Devin's presence. Although Steve Vai is a superb guitarist, several unsatisfying bouts with his wildly erratic albums have convinced me that either he has no facility (or advisors) for distinguishing between good ideas and extremely bad ones (both of which he has in abundance), or else it's me who can't distinguish them. Or possibly it's both of us.
Devin, on his own, is plagued by no such inconsistency. City takes industrial grind, Slayer-like battering-ram drums, withering guitar blasts, Thought Industry-esque tempo jerks, chattering dialog samples and vicious distortion, and somehow bolts it all together to produce one of the most punishing, exhausting and exhilarating (if exhaustion and punishment can exhilarate you like, at least in music, they do me) records I've heard since I tried listening to Reign in Blood, Front Line Assembly's Millennium and a Cuisinart full of ice cubes at the same time. As on "Down Deep Into the Pain", though, the thing that keeps this from descending into a maelstrom of undifferentiated noise is Devin's fitful penchant for periodically snapping out of yowling delirium to insert a semblance of soaring melody. Thus guitar and keyboard hooks emerge from the chaos every so often, to sparkle briefly against the roiling murk before a tendril drags them under again; thus Devin's vocals, mostly shouted with the articulation of a meteor impact, sporadically soften to the comforting lilt of a revving chain-saw. Your parents will insist it's all still shouting, to be sure, and you'll have a hard time arguing otherwise, but it is the shouting of a person who knows what notes are and could produce them if he felt like it, which, at least to connoisseurs of shouting, is an audible difference.
Iced Earth: The Dark Saga
My second Identity follow-up is vastly more accessible, though compared to Strapping Young Lad this isn't necessarily saying much. Iced Earth vocalist Matthew Barlow reminds me of a gruffer, lower-register version of Queensryche's Geoff Tate, and in fact the band reminds me of a gruffer, lower-register Queensryche in a way, too. There aren't any keyboards, there's no "Silent Lucidity" balladry, and Iced Earth tend to forge ahead in places where Queensryche would have veered off into complicated polyrhythmic evasive action, but Keith Menser's pounding bass work, produced in vivid detail, sounds to me a lot like Eddie Jackson's on the loud parts of Empire, and even without the keyboards the band's tense inter-verse guitar circling reminds me of the taut lead-ins to "Walk in the Shadows" or "I Dream in Infrared". Conversely, in parts, when Barlow lapses into growling and drummer Mark Prator substitutes speed-trial rumbling for subtlety, they suddenly sound a lot like South of Heaven-era Slayer, and I get the feeling Iced Earth isn't going to follow Queensryche into pop any time soon. Perhaps this integration of styles, speed-metal's bruising intensity with progressive-metal's more sophisticated senses of structure and melody, is the way the last metal age's legacy will be manifest in this one.
As long as we're doing a roll call of metal influences, one of the last era's bands whose stylistic potential I was most disappointed not to hear the fruition of was Celtic Frost. Perhaps the original masters of macabre, guttural proto-death metal, Celtic Frost also did a handful of songs in which their mystical foreboding was laced with wraith-like and operatic female backing vocals. The Scandinavian metal subculture has kept this germ of an idea alive through the intervening years, and the German band Therion (who, I assume, take their name from Celtic Frost's album To Mega Therion, or are at least conscious of the antecedent) resuscitate it as their central stylistic conceit. The band does have a couple conventional vocalists (not quite as unintelligible as Celtic Frost's, but in the same spirit), but they also employ five- or six-person formal choirs on almost all these songs. Whether the German choirs are singing English phonetically or this is just their style, they render the syllables of their lines so independently that I find it almost impossible to follow the words, which serves to give their parts even more of a disembodied and abstract eeriness than they already have. Especially paired with the band's intricate musical arrangements, thick with guitar leads, sequenced keyboard runs and sampled strings, closer in structure to symphonic form than pop songs, this produces a heady, whirling din that strikes me as what the heavy metal band Mussorgsky might have formed if he'd been born 130 years later could well have sounded like.
The Gathering: Mandylion
My favorite discovery of this batch, though, is another Century Media band, Holland's The Gathering. Their track on Identity 3...D!, actually, is the compilation's one non-album inclusion, a b-side called "Adrenaline", but the single it came from was for "Leaves", from this 1995 album, so that's what I bought. The Gathering's most obvious differentiator is that they have a female singer, Anneke van Giersbergen. Plenty of metal bands have used female backing vocalists, but a female lead (none of the Gathering's five male instrumentalists sing at all) is almost unheard of in metal. Of the three examples I can think of from my own collection, two (Lita Ford and Vixen) are probably best thought of as trash-pop with metal influences, not metal per se, and in the one pure metal band I have with a female singer, Germany's Warlock, the woman sings with such a thick German accent that the effect ends up being more masculine than many bands with male singers. The Gathering bear no resemblance to either of these. Geirsbergen's voice is strong and clear, somewhere between October Project's Mary Fahl and Rose Chronicles' Kristy Thirsk, with nothing harsh or overtly sexual about it. By herself, with a little Irish-accent coaching and some extra reverb, she could probably stand in for Maire Brennan in Clannad in a pinch. The band, who augment the standard guitar-bass-drums array with flute, dense layers of synthesizer, bells and wind chimes, meet her musically halfway; the elegant, atmospheric, wordless, Celtic title dirge and the long, delicate middle section of "Sand and Mercury" could be out-takes from the last Iona album, excised for being just a little bit too menacing. The core of their sound, however, can be mistaken for nothing but metal. Rene Rutten and Jelmer Wiersma's guitar processing is rawer than the metal norm, which usually sacrifices some of the instrument's natural edge in favor of a compressed buzz, and they tend to favor clear, sustained chords over the rhythmic half-muted pick attacks that are most metal guitarists' staples, but the massed guitars and keyboards roar and thunder like the approaching apocalypse, and drummer Hans Rutten's splash cymbals explode around them like mortal shells finding range. "Strange Machines", stiff and surging, sounds like Anacrusis at quarter-speed. "Eleanor" is like a cross between Love Club and Dream Theater. The particularly Rose Chronicles-like "In Motion #1"'s seething guitars are draped over an imperturbable synth-vibe skeleton. "Leaves" plays cascading drum rolls against ethereal synthesizer washes and firm guitar crunch, Anneke sliding along a sinuously legato melody line that seems to take minutes to reach its resolution. "Fear the Sea" has some of the album's most straightforward churning heavy metal guitar tropes, but it also has some keening mid-word vocal modulations that sound almost Middle-Eastern. The ten-minute epic "Sand and Mercury", sedate in parts, is towering and anthemic in others. And "In Motion #2", the reprise finale, swells from melancholy synth-cello to transcendent guitar-and-synth catharses that could cow IQ. It's an daunting chasm this album tries to span, from Ectophilic poise to metal fury, and I'm sure many denizens of both realms will find the crossing too vertiginous to attempt, but to me a bridge is almost always an improvement to a rift, if only because the view down is unfailingly the most spectacular from the middle.
The last detail that reinforces my fleeting conviction that metal might be in the process of recalling its scattered constituent parts is that Handsome, no matter how many times it seems just about to, never turns into the Offspring. Guitarist Peter Mengede, in his previous band, Helmet, was very much part of the migration away from metal, 1992's Meantime being a significant early milestone in the co-opting of metal guitar rhetoric to serve hardcore ends, but Handsome seems to have come much of the way around again. Where Helmet's sandblasted version of metal stripped it of its continuity and flow, leaving only jagged edges, Handsome begins to fill in the gaps again. These songs roar and slash, rather than hacking and stabbing. Runs of oblique chord changes yield to resonant, overdriven hooks, ringing harmonics and precipitously suspended fourths, like the Angel Rat of a Voivod that grew up as Sonic Youth, not an understaffed Gwar. Vocalist Jeremy Chatelain isn't James LaBrie or anything, but where he could easily have settled for the indie underachiever complacency of Bryan Holland or Bad Religion's Greg Graffin, or the clipped barking of Helmet's Page Hamilton, he instead leans in and tries to push the song somewhere rather than letting it just carry him. There's still plenty of bleak STP/Alice in Chains modern-rock angst simmering in the mix, to be sure, but if Helmet was like Anthrax in the process of becoming Fugazi, then perhaps Handsome is like Bush turning, ever so slowly, and only a tiny bit at first, into the Screaming Jets. And if so, then maybe we have finally passed the sullen equinox.