Two Hours Back
127 · 3 July 97
Megadeth: Cryptic Writings
If you're at all unclear about how fast the pace of music has become, thanks largely to the constant pressure for the new exerted by MTV and every other force that needs weekly infusions of fresh music to survive (I suppose I'm one of these, myself), just stretch your mind back, those of you who were aware that long ago, ten years, and examine the state of heavy metal. Going through my own collection, actually, I find that 1987 practically didn't exist. Almost all the bands that make up my own personal version of metal had records out in 1986, and wouldn't produce their next ones until 1988. But this is perhaps even more instructive. Slayer was in between the venomous Reign in Blood and the somewhat more song-oriented South of Heaven. Celtic Frost had made the unsettling and exploratory Into the Pandemonium, but had not yet committed their cheesy sell-out Cold Lake. Voivod had made Killing Technology, their first album that doesn't make me giggle uncontrollably, but not yet Dimension Hatross, which seems to me like the one where they start to become genuinely musical. Metal Church had made their last album with David Wayne, The Dark, but Mike Howe's Blessing in Disguise was still two years away. Black Sabbath was in between Seventh Star and The Eternal Idol, and Ozzy was between The Original Sin and No Rest for the Wicked, which has to be the dreariest four-album ebb in their collective history. Iron Maiden, never much of a dissident force to begin with, were sliding comfortably from Somewhere in Time to Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Out on the progressive-metal fringe, Queensryche had made what I think of as their breakthrough album, Rage for Order, and were working on the crypto-Orwellian Operation: Mindcrime, and Fates Warning had bid farewell to John Arch and their New Wave of British Heavy Metal upbringing with Awaken the Guardian, and would start their long Ray Alder-helmed campaign to sound more like Queensryche with 1988's No Exit.
The standards by which mid-Eighties metal was judged, though, at least for me, were Metallica and Megadeth, who between them were largely responsible for shifting the genre's whole center of gravity from heavy to speed. Metallica's Ride the Lightning came out in 1984, Master of Puppets in 1986; Megadeth's Killing Is My Business...And Business Is Good! is from 1985, Peace Sells...But Who's Buying? from 1986. These aren't the only four albums you could pick to serve as speed metal's statements of purpose, but they'll do. If old-school heavy metal had the ominous lumbering gait of a doomed soul wandering the earth, then speed metal was the jittery thrashing of paranoid millennialists; in both cases, the end is nigh, but where Black Sabbath sort of approached the apocalypse like Eeyore's birthday, Metallica and Megadeth flailed around like Tigger after trying to eat one of his thistles. (I can't believe I just described a stylistic schism in metal using a Pooh analogy; stop me before I make a pun about Milne-ialists, or begin composing "Now We Are 666"...) The beginning of the end of the era, in a way, was Metallica's epic, stamina-sapping ...And Justice for All, which also came out in 1988. After that, perhaps even under that album's weight, metal, speed and otherwise, started collapsing onto itself. By 1991 Slayer was dug in with a double live album, Celtic Frost was history, Voivod made a record that actually had singles, Metal Church made the bouncy The Human Factor, Sabbath was on the way to Dio's comeback album, and Ozzy had somehow become respectable. Fates Warning had done Parallels, Queensryche had made Empire and Dream Theater were working on Images and Words. Metallica made a hard rock album, Anthrax did "Bring the Noise" with Public Enemy, Ice-T formed Body Count, MTV put "Silent Lucidity" and "Nothing Else Matters" on hourly repeat, and metal scattered into the crowd, its pieces either absorbed by industrial, punk and rap, or else simply discarded.
Megadeth, on the other hand, whether out of obliviousness or self-sufficiency, kept on making records as if the Eighties would last forever. The cover of "Anarchy in the UK" on 1988's So Far, So Good...So What! was that album's only nod in punk's direction. 1990's Rust in Peace was florid, grim and intense. Countdown to Extinction managed a song about skydiving, for some token levity, but buried it in between titles like "Symphony of Destruction", "Architecture of Aggression", "Foreclosure of a Dream", "This Was My Life" and "Ashes in Your Mouth". 1994's Youthanasia, despite the Nevermind-esque cover, with babies clipped to a clothesline by their toes, belied its true regressive character as soon as you opened the jewel case and saw the band playing air guitar and grimacing mightily, hair blowing, in the picture printed on the face of the CD. 1995's Hidden Treasures, which collected a handful of miscellaneous soundtrack appearances, was essentially a holding pattern. But surely, with three years between real albums to think things over, three years in which to see that heavy metal, which was once powerful enough that teenagers would supposedly kill themselves over it, had become such a commodity that Blur could make "feeling heavy metal" into a two-minute pop song, three years in which to reorient themselves and find some motivating emotion other than shrill defiant fury -- surely after all this time Megadeth would adapt, somehow, to its surroundings, acknowledge its context, shape its music in some way, even if only subtly, to the contours of a much-changed world.
Nope. Everything in Megadeth's house must be velcroed to its shelf and laminated for dust-resistance, because Cryptic Writings shows so little cognizance of the world outside its walls that I half expect this is what was playing over the ship's intercom when they boarded the Marie Celeste. Did Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur really live and die in front of us during this decade? With this album playing it seems implausible. Revolutions? Riots? Riot Grrls? Spice Girls? Cryptic Writings' anachronistic spell is so tightly woven that even the Arch Deluxe seems like a wildly fanciful hallucination. Every dry kick-drum rattle or mannered pause for a fedback guitar trill makes me think Beavis and Butthead are about to cut in. "These guys rock." "Yeah. Yeah! They rock!" "But, like, they can play really fast, and all, but doesn't it feel like something is missing?" "Yeah. Yeah. Uh, what are you talking about?" "Like, Beavis, we're not fourteen any more." "Uh, yeah. Um. Are you talking about chicks? Or something?" Dave Mustaine is as pissed off at the world as always, but though literary sophistication was never his calling card, this time around the resemblance between the lyric sheet and the pained poetry I wrote in high school is uncomfortably striking. "The slayer's arrived / On a black horse of steel". "I'm like a bomb that's ticking, / I got voices in my head." "The mother of all that is evil, / Her lips are poisonous venom". "As medieval as Merlin, / A pact for power was made. / Lucifer in transition -- / It's time the price was paid." "Fight for freedom, fight authority, / Fight for anything, my country 'tis of me". If these were ever, really, the battles, they aren't anymore. Exhortations to fight authority seem hopelessly quaint to me now; implicit free-market tyranny and unplanned technological dehumanization have displaced dark sarcasms in the classroom. Who is afraid any more of an enemy you can actually see? The new battles are against our own urges, against the monsters that constitute themselves out of our own refuse, against not despotism but the downhill low-roads toward which our every step is drawn. Obsolete fulminations in an obsolete slang, this album is like Esperanto graffiti scrawled on the Maginot Line.
But, on the other hand, none of that criticism has to have the slightest relevance. "My Boyfriend's Back" wouldn't make much cultural sense if you wrote it today, either, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy it. A whole lot of people bought Lenny Kravitz albums without grousing about the fact that his entire aesthetic predated The Dukes of Hazzard, and was scarcely more topical. So, if you liked late-Eighties speed-metal, there's really no particular reason you should let the whining specters of Billy Corgan or Alanis Morissette spoil your enjoyment of this album. Set, in isolation, against just Megadeth's own history, rather than the entirety of an information-glutted globe, Cryptic Writings is a rock-solid record. Mustaine and Marty Friedman are the grand masters of guitar crunch and wail (and the occasional obligatory etude), and David Ellefson and Nick Menza's rhythm section barrels along with the unironic inexorability of a tank smashing down the center of a slalom course. Previous Megadeth albums showed the band slowly learning how to blend a little sonic diversity and some melodic appeal into their maelstrom delivery, and this one continues the trend. "Almost Honest" alternates churning menace with a cartwheeling chorus. Deadpan guitar flourishes in the solemn anti-drug anthem "Use the Man" remind me of Sabbath's "Sweet Leaf", which is a clever touch if I'm not inventing it. The brutal guitar rush of "Mastermind" strikes me as an effortless sketch of what Alex Lifeson has been trying so hard to achieve on the last couple of Rush albums. "The Disintegrators" and "fff" are fast enough to offer asylum to exiled old Anthrax fans. "Sin" is like a version of Metallica's "Enter Sandman" that people would still have been frightened of. "A Secret Place", with its pealing mock-sitar and swooping melodic flybys, reminds me a little of Savatage. "Have Cool, Will Travel" is another in Mustaine's series of strangled blues boogies. If this album had come out ten years ago, I think it would have seemed like a forward-looking classic. And if a classic from ten years ago can't still excite us, at least a little, today, then all music may as well be Muzak.
Thought Industry: Black Umbrella
Reliability through obliviousness takes many forms, and Thought Industry are one of metal's most bizarre ones. After their first three albums, Songs for Insects (one of the most self-descriptively titled records ever made), Mods Carve the Pig: Assassins, Toads and God's Flesh (probably even more self-descriptive, except I haven't the slightest idea what anything on it means) and last year's equally obscure (if slightly more subdued) Outer Space Is Just a Martini Away, I firmly expected them to keep making albums every bit as deranged, on the grounds that the band seemed so fundamentally insane that I doubted they were capable of anything else. Fond of nausea-inducing tempo shifts and bursts of head-clearing industrial noise, and lyrics that read like Joyce after a concussion (yours or his, take your pick), these records make Primus sound like Bettie Serveert. It's one thing, as an artist, to ignore your context; it's another to make art so patently unhinged that no contexts apply.
Which is why it's profoundly disconcerting to discover that Thought Industry have made, for their fourth album, one that is not only almost entirely coherent, but that is largely conventional in musical structure. "Black Umbrella" doesn't sound like a Thought Industry album title, and the album Black Umbrella doesn't sound like Thought Industry would make is misfit in precisely the same way. First of all, the lyrics are actually comprehensible. "Famous Mistake" is about getting drunk and falling asleep in a nativity scene. "Blue" is a confused attempt to understand a failed relationship. "Tragic Juliet" is a surprisingly touching long-distance love song with a drinking subtext. Drinking and romantic disaster twirl around each other in an angry, inebriated clench throughout the entire program, in fact. The booklet makes a token effort to play down the seriousness of these themes, with a scrawled "Weep. Boo hoo. Sob." at the end of the text and the band members all looking stagily bored, depressed or hung-over in their credits photos, but while vocalist Brent Oberlin and bassist Herb Ledbetter's pointedly not thanking anybody in their sections of the acknowledgments is ostensibly facetious, guitarist Paul Enzio and Jared Bryant thank slews of people without any apparent irony, and I start to wonder. The crude drawings of a couple that appear everywhere else in the packaging don't look like a joke at all. There's clearly sex going on in one of them, if not all four, and it's difficult to tell whether intimacy or violence has the upper hand. The credits claim Oberlin didn't do them himself, but they have the terrible severity of personal obsession about them all the same. They look like the sort of drawings you'd do, locked in your room for days on end, after somebody you loved has ruined your life. These sound like the sort of songs you'd write, too. Depressed self-absorption is a time-honored narrative attitude, but these read like the writer is likely to hurt someone.
Thought Industry's usual musical tactics, which approximate the experience of sitting in an open Rabbit convertible during a storm of hail the size of Rabbit convertibles, would have been eminently well-suited for this war between desperate sadness and vindictive fury. Too well-suited, perhaps: if this album was as witheringly chaotic, musically, as Mods Carve the Pig, so overpoweringly relentless that nervous laughter is about the only useful defense, the lyrics might have seemed like just another excessive touch. If I were Brent, and really meant this stuff, I'd make an album that tempered its musical willfulness enough that the lyrics lay exposed. The fact that he has doesn't mean he does, but it doesn't disabuse me of the theory, either. Of course, this is still Thought Industry, so "tempered" is relative. "My Famous Mistake"'s distracted verse guitar cycles lead to a jagged chorus stomp like the slow advance of a robot army down a night-deserted street. "Blue" starts out sounding a bit like Shudder to Think, and then leans into a roar of shouting and guitar surge that wouldn't be out of character for Helmet. "Tragic Juliet" sounds like the band is trying to impersonate Modern English, but can't quite manage the romantic rapture; "World" sounds they're attempting XTC psychedelia, but the requisite innocent airiness is just a little beyond them. "Bitter", a marching anthem for ant battalions, is closer to Thought Industry's old forms, but on the earlier albums a marching anthem for insects would have sounded like a nightmare Fantasia parade, ants for ten seconds and then wasps for five, fireflies rioting for a couple, ants again for four and a half bars, then adrenalized spiders, praying mantises clashing halberds against the cobblestones, maggots suddenly wheeling off to strip a random applauding bystander to the bones, ants again, scorpions on poison-soaked magic carpets, ants climbing over Leiningen's trenches, ants catching up to you when you can no longer run, ants ripping you apart and carrying away each tiny piece of your body to assemble a ghoulish simulacrum of you with, a giant puppet killer that comes for you eyelessly when all you can do is lie there and stare at it. This time, it's just ants, marching, and a few hornets buzzing by in air cover.
Probably the closest Black Umbrella comes to Thought Industry's former trademark dementia is "Consistently Yours, Pluto", a lurching miniature epic that shifts back and forth between single- and double-time, and 4/4 and 3/4, synthesizers whining eerily under the pounding guitars and thrashing drums, Oberlin's voice wrapping itself with exaggerated care around the obtuse "Without you I can't hug the stars, / Tip my head back and drive Cole's combine towards Pluto until my face drowns" chorus. "December 10th", with its abstract cadences, a tuneless sheet-metal bass rumble, and interludes of distant piano and wispy falsetto backing-vocal asides, is like the same song with all but the last couple ounces of inertia drained out of it. "Edward Smith", though, is more like how Everclear might sound if they'd all gone to music school (if you can imagine Art getting through "Loser Makes Good" without any triumphant lapses of discipline), and while the drums stop and start, the guitars keep a steady, uniform beat going. "Her Rusty Nail" fractures the rhythm again, but even as it plummets from its pulsing verses, where the bass and drums spin skeptically around each other in a measured standoff, into choruses in which cymbal detonations and guitar bursts alternate as if constrained from cooperating by ancient familial vendettas, it never shakes the aura of frantic control, like this song is Oberlin's version of the grain-tracing ritual from Orson Scott Card's Path, and his salvation depends on each crash falling precisely on a grid line.
"Pink Dumbo", dense and textural, could (except for the hoarse, distorted vocals) be a Whipping Boy or My Bloody Valentine backing track. "Swank" might almost be the Foo Fighters essaying a little Mission of Burma angularity and some Ministry vocal histrionics, but again there's an elusive precision at the core of the sound that is alien to grunge. "Earwig", which falls into sotto voce stasis for seconds on end, only to erupt into lung-rending howls, recites "Tell your Mother 'Hi', / Because I am home again. / I am home again to break what's left / Like I just don't care." over and over again until I'm pretty convinced he means it. But just when I think things might be about to go seriously crazy again, the album ends with the understated nine-minute finale "24 hrs. Ago I Could Breathe/Dec. 11th". I expect the gentle drift of the first six minutes to give way to sheer terror at any moment, but it never does. The electricity finally kicks in, about where I assume the slash in the title is supposed to fall, but all it contributes is two minutes of what is essentially an awkward, extended bar-band vamp, followed by a couple desultory fragments of other ideas that never develop into anything, and then the record ends. This is not a song about despair, it is a song that coalesces out of it. I half expect to find a suicide note at the end, or see the last few bubbles reaching the surface from where the narrator drowned himself. This album is easily depressing enough to make me think that loneliness is the prudent life-course.
Which is all the more remarkable a thought to leave a Thought Industry album with, because the thought I left all three of their other albums with was simply "Yikes!" "Yikes!" isn't a bad feeling, mind you, but it's not one I learn much from, either. All four Thought Industry albums exhaust me, but the first three are mostly loud, bracing and chaotic, like driving a riding mower down a gravel driveway, and this one is more like an anvil perched on the back of my neck, gravity formulating a slow, convincing argument whose point I discover, as my head hits the ground, that I haven't completely anticipated after all. And while those both may sound like unpleasant ways to spend an hour to you, exhaustion is the surest sign I know that I've actually experienced something, and at least with an anvil perched on your neck you can hear yourself think.