A Stream of Lilac and Razors
219 · 8 April 99
VAST: Visual Audio Sensory Theater
"Well, that was cool, but there isn't really anything happening in heavy metal", I find myself saying, periodically, and it finally occurred to me that if I quit just muttering that and sticking every example on the shelf, over time I might find out that there's something going on in metal, after all. Going on in obscure niches, and in no coherent fashion, perhaps, but that's true of most genres, most of the time, and there's no particular reason metal should be different. I think the only real problem metal faces, if there's even one, is a crisis of leadership. The most prominent bands that could be making heavy metal, if they felt like it, seem determined to ally themselves to any other movement. On my curmudgeonly days, it feels like rap swagger and ironic slacker detachment, between them, have co-opted a whole generation's conception of cool, and the kids who would have grown their hair long and bought leather pants and flying-V guitars when I was their age are now spending their time perfecting the tricky art of affecting a limp without their tarp-like pants falling off, joining smug ska-punk bands, or scheming to move to whatever city all the "good" DJs seem to currently come from. It's hard, of course, to formulate any sensible argument that preening, pentatonic-soloing, mock-Satanic arena bombast is aesthetically superior to churning Family Values Tour thrash, and I wouldn't try, but it was fun, and I miss it.
The easiest way to cope with the realignment of genres would be to develop new fondnesses for new hybrids, and I've done plenty of that in other analogous situations, but in metal's case I've opted to narrow my idea of its essential character and press on until I find some people who appear to agree. My old definition of heavy metal was that it was music for which power was, if not the sole aim of art, at least the central urge. The rest of the simplistic taxonomy starts something like this: punk is based on anger, rock on sound, pop on melody, dance on movement, folk on storytelling, and so on. Exceptions and perversion are prevalent, but when I do the scatter-plots in my mind, every genre I care about collects around something. I know this sounds circular, since we wouldn't think of them as genres if they didn't somehow cohere, but I guess I believe the common motivations bring about the genres, not vice versa. As the millennium ends, my minor reformulation of the rule is that metal is the genre that still takes sonic power seriously. Korn and Rob Zombie don't count. Hip hop collectives that resync old metal riffs to lurching drop-kick rhythms don't count. Metallica doing Bob Seger covers doesn't count. All those things have their places, but they're not what I mean by metal any more.
And if the things I've excluded from my version of metal don't seem absurd enough, maybe the things I include will be the last straw. My favorite metal album of late, joining such dubious past honorees as The Sisters of Mercy's Vision Thing, Living Colour's Vivid, The Screaming Jets' All for One and Gary Numan's Sacrifice, is Visual Audio Sensory Theater, the acronym-expanding debut by guitar-prodigy Jon Crosby's studio fabrication VAST. The name makes it sound like the kind of multimedia experiment that would flatten onto a CD inelegantly, like I thought Thomas Dolby's The Gate to the Mind's Eye soundtrack did, and I was at home writing music reviews the night VAST played in Boston so there may be a spectacle that I missed, but if I heard this album without knowing what the name stood for, it would never have occurred to me to wonder. The things that make VAST metal, to me, are the dense, surging guitar riffs (omnipresent, but in sharpest relief in the pounding opener "Here" and the Led Zepplin-ish hooks of "Three Doors"), James Lo's sledgehammer drumming on the choruses of "Touched", whirring Deep Purple-esque organ sighs on "Dirty Hole", Crosby's fraying howl on "I'm Dying", the brutal machine rhythm of "Temptation", the groaning bass on "The Nile's Edge", and the ominous space-opera noises on "Somewhere Else to Be". If your meter flips the other way, it might be because of the Nine Inch Nails-style battering-ram drum loops on "Here", the brittle acoustic guitar on "Touched", the distended blues of "Dirty Hole", the burbling synth-pop effervescence of "Pretty When You Cry", the haunting strings and solo cello on the "Comfortably Numb"-like "Flames", the way the geometric stomp of "Three Doors" makes you think for the first time that Stabbing Westward may have been onto something, the extent to which the macabre "Somewhere Else to Be" reminds you of Propaganda, the two songs laced with Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares samples and the four built on Benedictine chanting, or the breathtaking grace of the slow, humming finale, "You", like Thomas Dolby's "Leipzig" swollen to the scale of U2's "A Sort of Homecoming". The meticulous production and the choral samples both argue that Crosby is an heir to the paradoxical sweeping-epics-born-in-studio-reclusion legacy of Kate Bush and Andrew Eldritch, but his idiom is less theatrical than either of theirs, the oblique running interrogation of god in the lyrics notwithstanding. I assume Nine Inch Nails were an influence, as well, but Crosby's notions of gothic horror are a bit more complex than Trent Reznor's, and to me even more affecting (to pick the most obtrusive example, contrast Crosby's conflicted "I didn't want to fuck you, baby" with Reznor's blunt "I want to fuck you like an animal"). And perhaps the most exciting thing about VAST, which I'm not sure I can really say about The Sisters of Mercy, and certainly not about Nine Inch Nails, is that I'm quite confident Crosby understands music. This is a record about atmosphere, as much as about composition, but there is skill and subtlety in it. Nine Inch Nails' power is a product of attitude, aggression superimposed on a docile infrastructure like a toy guitar run through a stack of Marshalls the size of Macy's. Visual Audio Sensory Theater would be a very different record without all the production tricks, but I think there would be something left. The string arrangements are sensible, the guitar-playing is deft. Crosby is still working out where his vocal range ends, and how he should behave when he's outside of it, but his voice mixes some of Bono's epic composure with traces of Josh Clayton's weary melancholy and a tiny bit of Jim Morrison's strut. It pleases me to imagine that Crosby and Kleenex Girl Wonder's Graham Smith are alternate incarnations of the same spirit, the will to turn a bedroom inside-out so the dreams can escape as sound. Smith's careening low-fi pop tries to batter the rest of the world into the bedroom's comfortable disarray; Crosby explains how the biggest yearnings and doubts in the universe can fit within any four walls.
Spock's Beard: Day for Night
As what passes for metal in the mainstream has become more repetitive and brutish, I've expanded my contrary conception in the opposite direction, pushing into the demesne of what I would previously have called neo-progressive rock, and insisted was different. It was always a fine line, though, and you have to be pretty attentive to notice when you're crossing it. One moment Spock's Beard is flitting through four-part harmony and a searching bass figure that wouldn't be out of place on a Yes record, and the next they're soaring into anthemic power-chord rapture on the order of Dream Theater. Although the credits reveal no common personnel, Spock's Beard makes the most sense to me as part (along with Magellan) of the continuation of the florid experiment begun on echolyn's As the World (and not, to me, continued in echolyn keyboardist Chris Buzby's jazzier subsequent group Finneus Gauge). Metal purists will probably balk at a dozen things about Spock's Beard, as integral as their layers of keyboards (you're unlikely to catch Motörhead's roadies gingerly crating up a mellotron every night) or as tangential as singer Neal Morse's middle-register voice, which at times sounds more like Michael Penn than Ronnie James Dio. "The Distance to the Sun" is worryingly mushy, surely Metallica would have edited the minor-key noodling and the peppy handclaps out of "Crack the Big Sky", a Beatles-via-ELO piano ballad like "Can't Get It Wrong" has no place on a real metal record, and the squawking funk of "Mommy Comes Back" is undignified, even for people who didn't see anything funny about zebra-stripe spandex. Old-school heavy metal often tried to limit musical complexity and adventurousness to the guitar solos, which saved a lot of money on music-school tuition for bass players; Spock's Beard spread it out, so that even the rhythm-guitar sprints leap from key to key as they go. I suspect that metal fans will find it easier to wait out the frilly sections than Fragile devotees will to grit their teeth through the metal charges, but I could be wrong. I've been bothered, in the past, when progressive-metal bands have strayed towards pop far less obviously than some of these songs, but this is the only Spock's Beard record I have, so I'm willing to just stipulate that this is how they sound. If they stretch the definition of metal, at times, I let them because they do it so unselfconsciously, like it's never occurred to them that anybody would want to draw borders on the perfectly arable land between Styx and Yes and Dream Theater. Metal is not an allegiance you have to declare or renounce, it's just a color you need in order to get the pictures of some things right.
Platypus: When Pus Comes to Shove
The "serious" in my revised definition of metal has to be bent a little to get around Platypus, an amiably informal roots-homage side-project of Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian and bassist John Myung, King's X singer and guitarist Ty Tabor, and Dixie Dregs drummer Rod Morgenstein. While these songs are obviously being played by metal musicians (it's hard, here as elsewhere, to shake the impression that progressive-metal side-projects primarily exist as outlets for all the instrumental solos that won't fit on the bands' regular albums), the target ethos is chugging Seventies proto-arena-rock (I could swear there are at least two places in every song that swerve away at the last possible second before they would have become "Rocky Mountain Way"), and as a result much of this record sounds like a higher-energy alternate soundtrack for the aging reunion in the film Still Crazy. Arguably the ridiculous mock solemnity of "Platt Opus", with its plangent instructional-material voice-over at the end, would have nudged Still Crazy farther toward This Is Spinal Tap than the deadpan Jones/Frederiksen/Difford songs they actually used, which might have pleased reviewers better, although I don't think it would have improved the movie. I'm not sure I want to hear one of these records from every recombination of progressive-metal players the genre could generate, but there's a charming thickheadedness to this quartet's attempt to explain, in their own words, what they loved about the music they grew up with, and so far it's holding my attention much better than some similarly-motivated albums of covers. Nostalgia, like many things, sometimes works better if you don't take it literally.
Witness, for example, Angelica, a high-concept (in the Weekend at Bernie's sense) album if there ever was one. Given the aesthetic similarities between rock and grand opera, it's shocking that nobody thought of this idea before now: famous opera arias, sung by real opera singers, but with the accompaniments done as blustery LA studio-metal, with marquee guitarists supplying histrionic solos for, loosely speaking, counterpoint. When you examine the credits' fine-print you discover that the guest appearances aren't as numerous or pervasive as the stickers on the outside intimated (Steve Vai, Eric Johnson and Dweezil Zappa play on a song apiece, Steve Stevens and Lyle Workman contribute a solo each, and David Foster adds a perilously Muzak-ish piano to "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring"), and producer Clif Magness' modern accompaniments are a rather undisciplined melange of styles, most rather more MOR than metallic. I bet you could make an album with this same premise that would be quite a lot better than this one, but it hardly matters. If the frisson of hearing a credible soprano in full flight over a thumping rock beat sounds appealing (if you wished, for instance, that the diva in The Fifth Element had done another song or two before getting killed), here are eleven examples that probably have, in toto if not in detail, exactly the composite effect you imagine. I don't think it has any nutritive value, but neither does a lot of perfectly enjoyable snack food.
A few years ago I went through an obsessive obscure-progressive-rock phase like, in shape if not scale, my current indie-pop immersion, and although the flow of new prog bands in my life has slowed considerably, there's still a steady trickle of new albums by the bands I already know about to keep me feeling at least tenuously connected. Maybe this is a sign that I'm doing something wrong, but the bands I've developed individual bonds with (as opposed to aggregate bonds to bands that collectively evoke the style, but are interchangeable to me), almost without exception, are the ones that basically sound like they're making the records IQ hasn't gotten around to. Everon's 1995 album Flood, apparently their second, is discernibly overbearing and underthought, but it's also one of my favorite sounding albums I own, unabashedly glossy in production and deliciously dense in arrangement, simmering keyboards and roaring guitars blending into an epic blur under Oliver Philipps' swooping voice. Paradoxes appears to be the band's first album, originally released in 1993 but reissued in 1997 and mail-ordered by me in 1999. Prog-rock back-catalog foraging tends, in my experience, to follow a largely unvarying pattern, to which Paradoxes is no exception. The earlier album will be slightly less confident than the later one, the production gloss applied a little more patchily, and in a few places the band will try a little too hard, overestimating how hard they have to work to make the desired impression. The level of technical expertise progressive rock requires for entrance is so high that many bands don't have much headroom left after album one, so album two is rarely more than a slight refinement of the first one. I don't know if I needed other Everon albums, since I'm quite happy to listen to Flood again and again in fact, never mind in principle, but I've certainly enjoyed it enough to justify paying the band three times, and besides, I have a catalog tapeworm that must be fed.
Someone identified only as E. Roc produced Paradoxes and Flood, but he wasn't available (the liner notes carefully don't say why) for Venus, Everon's 1997 third album (made in the wake of the bankruptcy of Dutch progressive label and magazine SI, who put out Flood, and generally championed the cause of what they called "Symphonic Rock"), so Philipps and drummer Christian Moos, adopting a time-honored approach to this setback, built a studio of their own and set about producing Venus themselves. Self-produced albums have a natural tendency toward production restraint, I think, since there's less urge to put a stamp on the production other than the stamp that's already on the songwriting and performances, and Venus is clearly less shiny than Flood, less unified (or less homogenized, depending on your view), but glossiness is relative, and Venus is big-production by any reasonable standard. Philipps and Moos offer, in their liner notes, to rent out the studio and themselves, and this album makes a fairly compelling demo of their skills. I suspect, though, that after the fourth album we'll look back and realize that Venus was really more of a first draft, like Paradoxes, and that it took Philipps and Moos two albums to reach complete self-sufficiency. Which means the fifth one should be breathtaking.
Pallas: Beat the Drum
The band Flood reminded me most of, the Scottish quintet Pallas, made a few records in the mid-Eighties (a self-released 1982 debut called Arrive Alive, the overblown 1984 concept-album The Sentinel, produced by Yes collaborator Eddie Offord, the 1995 between-albums EP The Knightmoves, and the comparatively commercial 1986 rock record The Wedge, produced by Mick Glossop), and then were not heard from for a long time. The first SI compilation, in 1991, included a new Pallas song, the unmistakable "War of Words", and claimed the band were working on a new album, but 1992 saw only the reissues of The Sentinel and Knightmoves to Wedge (the EP and album combined), and by the second SI collection, in 1993, they had another new song ("Never Too Late"), but still no new album. I gave up. Years passed. To my astonishment, it turns out they really have been working on the album all this time, just slowly; fittingly, Beat the Drum bears a 1998 copyright, but didn't limp out into the world until a couple of months ago. Me and my friend Matt are the only people I know who've ever heard of them, which isn't much of a welcoming parade after thirteen years away, but presumably they have fans elsewhere.
If I'd spent the whole thirteen years waiting for this record, I'd be pretty disappointed. Ignore the decade, though, and pretend they only spent two or three years making it, and it's an impressive leap. The Sentinel is a novelty record, to me, way too rococo to take seriously, and painfully earnest about its clumsy Atlantis/Europe metaphor. Knightmoves to Wedge I love, but with the understanding that it's partly a commercial sell-out (but then, my two favorite IQ albums are their much-reviled major-label efforts, Nomzamo and Are You Sitting Comfortably?), and a failed one at that, and deliberately underplays Pallas' abilities. IQ worked out a compromise between the two urges, letting their two pop records inform a return to most of the hallmarks of their old style for 1993's Ever and 1997's Subterranea, but Pallas go one step further, and invent a new style that doesn't follow as directly from any of their precedents. Beat the Drum sounds more like Subterranea to me, in fact, than it does like The Sentinel or Knightmoves to Wedge, as if Pallas has decide to write off all the records they should have made and try to get caught up. Alan Reed's voice still wobbles unsteadily, and usually sounds like he's singing through the top of his skull instead of his mouth, but he's learned to keep the plaintive quiver of portent out of it, and acquired a slightly bluesy twang that reminds me of Rainbow circa Straight Between the Eyes (Joe Lynn Turner's shift). The rest of the band (replacement drummer Colin Fraser is the only new member) fan out around him with a much surer sense of the space between them than on Knightmoves to Wedge, where they were often crammed together like they were trying to emit a single five-player noise. However better played this record is, though, Pallas still basically sound like an easily-distracted Saga trying to reverse-engineer Marillion songs, but that was OK with me in 1986, and neither they nor I have changed enough since then for it to not still be fun.
The Gathering: How to Measure a Planet?
One of the few metal records from the past few years that I'd characterize as innovative was The Gathering's 1995 album Mandylion, not their first but the first with female singer Anneke van Giersbergen. The combination of the band's lumbering, semi-gothic metal grind with Anneke's frail, ethereal voice was very disconcerting and seductive, like being mauled by a teddy bear with Ellen Barkin's face. The 1997 follow-up, though, Nighttime Birds, I could never get a handle on, and eventually I stopped trying. Nighttime Birds lacked Mandylion's tension, for me, as if Anneke and the band had become too comfortable with each other. They were due for one more chance, at least, but I couldn't have resisted a double album called How to Measure a Planet? in any case. In just a few moments, standing there in the record store, holding the jewel-case in my hand, I constructed a pathetically elaborate fantasy of what this album was about, a trenchant millennial assessment of the state of the world, ostensibly apocalyptic in tone, but fundamentally hopeful, if only because there's always a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that keeps us from being able to simultaneously verify every one of our grim hunches about the disintegration of human culture. Of course such a survey would take two CDs to get through, two hours for two thousand years of calendar-marked decline (with some theological angle, too, no doubt, although I hadn't worked out what). I put off listening to the album until I knew I had a block of time long enough to accommodate it, with correctly focused attention.
I was overprepared. The title turns out to be about calculating the size of a planet, not its worth, and the length is a function of patience, not thematic ambition. Most of these songs are slow and sinister, but better suited, to me, for background ambience than inspection. I can listen to this music quite happily for the hour and forty-five minutes it runs, but I have to have something else to do while I listen. The songs merge, mercilessly, the band droning, Anneke's voice like a bell I hit an hour ago but can still hear exactly as clearly. In the end only three songs have enough individual identity that I recognize them when they come around again. "Illuminating" is the most like Mandylion, drifting verses that give way to a wailing, pulsing chorus, guitars and keyboards sawing in concert. "Probably Built in the Fifties" is the most abstract, a desultory, distorted drum-loop crashing under humming synthesizers and a sinuous, processed vocal. The third song I remember, though, "Liberty Bell", is almost intense enough to justify the whole ordeal. It builds slowly, taking over a minute to get up to speed, but it does build, and once it's underway it's inexorable, like an unearthly cross between Celtic Frost, the Rose Chronicles and ABBA, Anneke sounding, for perhaps the first time, like she's actually part of the band, not a voice drifting in from some unrelated session in the next studio over. The lyrics aren't much, but they're sung from the point of view of astronauts circling the earth, and I could find a place for this in the story I wanted this album to tell, the diary of observers with the ideal vantage point from which to watch the century end. Their capsule spins right behind the sweep of the sun (would that work? must find an astrophysicist to ask), so they can watch midnight traverse the globe. As the Y2K disaster strikes the longitudes in turn, city lights wink out, and the astronauts watch time seem to unwind, humanity plunging backwards into its own history, every minute undoing a decade (is that right? check the math) of technological folly, racing backwards toward purity (an arithmetic conceit or a Christian one?). And every year the world sheds, through that long orbit of judgment, the astronauts forgive, until as they come around the back side, and finally jump the date line, they have forgiven every wrong the race ever committed. And just then, as their orbit starts to decay (they have no landing module, and will die during re-entry; I don't know why, but I'll think of something), the world starts to reawaken. Power flows back into the grids. People return to their lives, most of them annoyed that the utility companies took a whole day to recover. The workers at the power companies know, though, that they had nothing to do with the reactivation, that their generators were lost beyond recall, that some force much greater than a digit underflow shut off the grids, waited a day, and then turned them on again. What they don't know, and can never find out (as the capsule burns up, arcing toward New Zealand), is that it was the astronauts' forgiveness that saved the planet. The human race continues because three mortals (why three? heretical Holy-Trinity-is-mortal angle?) took on the connected responsibilities of judging and atoning. The answer to the title's question is that you never do measure a planet, really. A culture doesn't have a value that's waiting to be discerned, it only gets value by the sacrifice you're willing to make in order for it to continue. We give it our life.
Hellhammer: Apocalyptic Raids
I assume Therion got its name from the Celtic Frost album To Mega Therion, since the seeds of their style, to me, are in the sepulchral Celtic Frost track "Necromantical Screams", from that album, and the even eerier "Tristesses de la Lune", on the one after it, Into the Pandemonium. Before Martin Ain and Thomas Gabriel Warrior formed Celtic Frost they had a lugubrious trio called Hellhammer, who recorded a four-song 1984 EP and two more songs for a compilation, which were combined on a CD reissue in 1990, which then drifted back out of print and has now been re-reissued by Noise. The original EP was a pivotal event in the evolution of death-metal, but fifteen years later it sounds baldly ridiculous. Warrior sang like a wolf choking on wet rabbits in Celtic Frost, too, but on these songs it sounds more like he's talking in his sleep, with a bad cold, while having a nightmare in which he's being tortured to no specific rhythm. Neither he nor Ain have learned to do much with their instruments yet, and drummer Bruce Day's idea of a percussion part is less a beat than his impression of a bushel of skulls being kicked down a dungeon stairway. "Messiah", the second of the compilation tracks, almost works itself into a discernible cadence, though, and it's worth the price of the disc, to me, to look over at the timer on the CD player after what feels like five or six minutes of the soporific "Revelations of Doom" and discover that song lasts 2:49, total, and is only half over.
Apollyon Sun: God Leaves (And Dies)
Celtic Frost disintegrated after the 1992 retrospective Parched With Thirst Am I and Dying, despite including rough drafts of a couple new songs on it. Warrior re-emerges, having changed his name to Thomas Gabriel Fischer but not altered his voice at all, in the new quintet Apollyon Sun, whose only output, so far, is this five-song 1998 EP. Fischer's new collaborators push his chair into the new sun by surrounding him with clattering drum-machine loops, seething synth-bass buzz and a cacophony of dialog samples, but Thomas' voice could turn the Squirrel Nut Zippers into a semblance of Celtic Frost, let alone a band who wants to help, and the new songs on Parched With Thirst... were experimenting with machine beats anyway, so this strikes me as exactly what Celtic Frost was probably on the way towards. Except, perhaps, the way "Bedlam and Blind" sounds like a twelve-story David Bowie muttering "Da Doo Ron Ron" to himself.
Celtic Frost, Slayer and Voivod are the anchors of one corner of heavy metal, to me. Slayer hasn't done anything since my last report, and Voivod's plans were slowed by a bad tour-van accident, last August, from which singer Eric Forrest is lucky to be still recovering, but we're relieved of the burden of waiting in silence by this collection of three remixes, four outtakes from recent album sessions, and four live recordings. Of the remixes, I like the crazed Foetus rending of the Phobos track "Forlorn" enough to hope that Thirlwell (who helped with one song on Negatron) gets involved again with the next Voivod record, but the techno jitters added to "Nanoman" and "Mercury" seem like wastes of energy to me. The four outtakes are all plausible enough on their own terms, and while neither Negatron nor Phobos particularly needed more material, then or now, the frantic, "Batman"-ish "Ion", at least, was worth exhuming (although of course Voivod did the "Batman" theme, itself, on Dimension Hatröss). The live versions of the recent songs "Project X" and "Cosmic Conspiracy" are pretty close to the album versions, but the performance of "Astronomy Domine", the Pink Floyd song first covered on Nothingface, is harrowing, and the spirited warp-speed rout of "Nuclear War", from way back on 1984's War and Pain, is thoroughly surreal, and makes me eager to hear the full live album that Michel and Denis are working on while Eric recuperates.
Solitude Aeturnus: Adagio
If you need some old-fashioned heavy metal, though, to calibrate all these other variants against, Solitude Aeturnus are still busily writing and recording what sound as much like new Black Sabbath songs, to me, as the two new songs Black Sabbath did write. They've sped up, some, since the becalmed gloom of Into the Depths of Sorrow and Beyond the Crimson Horizon, but a few more beats per minute do little to brighten the turgid, moaning riffs that these songs are built around. I'm not sure it makes any sense to say that the specter of Black Sabbath has been haunting Solitude Aeturnus, since that would be redundant in both directions, but Solitude Aeturnus does finally face the Sabbath legacy squarely by covering, as this album's finale, "Heaven and Hell". Other than Robert Lowe transposing Dio's vocal part down to his lower vocal range, and Perez and Rivera adding a few more notes to the guitar solos than Tony Iommi would have bothered with, they hardly bother changing the song at all. When the final verse kicks in, though, it's clear to me why they didn't need to. The song and the band belong to each other. "Heaven and Hell" made Solitude Aeturnus, so it should hardly come as a surprise that they don't seem sure where their version stops being their ancestor and starts being something they've created, in return.
Helloween: Better Than Raw
And what better place to end our meandering census of the scattered tribes of metal than one of its bleakest evolutionary dead-ends? My ruefully affectionate review of Master of the Rings, the Helloween album before last, is the only thing I've written, in four-plus years of doing this, that generates a reliable stream of completely intolerant, profanity-strewn, parentage-questioning hate-mail, so I feel compelled to restate, not cloaked in any linguistic garb that might confuse fourteen-year-olds, my two positions on this band. First, I like them. I have seven Helloween CDs, and six more by Kai Hansen's post-Helloween band Gamma Ray. I have listened to them all, some of them many times each. I enjoy listening to them. But, second, you have to understand that when people who don't like heavy metal say that it's puerile and offensive, Helloween is precisely what they mean. The name is stupid, the lyrics are sophomoric, the music is cartoonish. If you don't believe me, just pick up your copy of Better Than Raw, walk out onto the street, hand it to the first adult you see, and watch what happens to their face as they look at the leering caricature of a woman on the cover. It's embarrassing. (And they haven't even realized, yet, that there are enlargements of this drawing on the tray and the CD itself, and a fold-up poster of it wedged behind the booklet, just in case anybody tries to convince themselves that it was only meant as a joke.) Playing the music for them will only set their frown. Like this music, if you want, but do it in private, and understand that you are inviting contamination into your home. Helloween are, in fact, the ultimate heavy-metal test. This is metal at its worst. If you can put up with metal when it comes home looking like this, witless and belligerent, with the repulsive leer of someone who thinks, and if we're compassionate we assume only temporarily, that being too blitzed to operate your own zipper is irresistibly sexy; if you can listen to metal this oblivious to its surroundings and still smile, still find something lovable or electrifying under the lurid facade, still remember why you once wanted to grow up like this, or if you didn't imagine why some of the rest of us did, even people who wouldn't frighten you in an elevator or run you off a rural interstate, people who give every usual indication of knowing better; if you can hear the small, simple thrill of discovered power lurking amidst this sagging, dissolute artifice; if you can spot, hidden in the middle of it, the self around which the self-parody has become encrusted; if you can do any of that, then every other obscure pleasure in a universe practically constructed from them patiently awaits you.