Darkness, My Old Friend
338 · 19 July 01
Nevermore: Dead Heart, In a Dead World
My personal map of popular music has long drawn genre lines between "pop", "rock" and "metal" this way: pop is primarily concerned with melody, rock with sound, metal with power. These are gross oversimplifications, obviously, and it would be trivial to construct long exception lists or quibble about etymology or border-placement, but even if these descriptions are only my internal definitions of the terms, and rely on a roll-call of ancillary constraining assumptions in order to mean anything at all, they've often been useful to me in disentangling the components of my reactions to music, or occasionally to confuse them, as when I insist that Vision Thing is one of my favorite metal albums. Fill in a few other genres (folk is primarily concerned with storytelling (or perhaps more precisely, story-sharing), punk with anger, New Wave with technology, progressive with complexity, Ecto with grace, noise with noise), and you've got the sketchy outlines of a profile of the major things I like in music, and by exclusion (the general absence of genres primarily concerned with rhythm, sex, drugs, tradition, status, improvisation, hatred, calm, appropriation, kitsch, irony or sleaziness) many of the things to which I don't usually react as favorably. Metal, however, was in a sense my first love, the first kind of music that felt to me like a thing I'd been searching for as I made my way through other styles. If we imagine my musical universe beginning with "The Sound of Silence", which I usually do (although the first grown-up records I can remember "borrowing" from my parents' collection downstairs to play on my record-player in my own room were whatever Harry Belafonte album had "Man Piaba", something by the Weavers, and for reasons I've forgotten a stray Ray Charles album), my early-teen discovery process followed what in retrospect can be made to seem like a fairly straight line through the Eagles, the Bee Gees, Billy Joel, Steve Miller, Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, Toto, Boston, Rush and Blue Öyster Cult to Black Sabbath, where it actually came to rest on The Mob Rules, but it makes a better story to say it was "Paranoid", because then we can believe that the center-span of my musical taste is stretched between two songs that came into being approximately when I did.
My active involvement with heavy metal has waxed and waned over the years, sliding into its most recent neglect because after getting very excited about progressive metal in the late Eighties (Queensrÿche) and early Nineties (Dream Theater), I gradually started to feel either that there was nothing much happening in metal, or else that the things that were happening, pushing metal towards grunge, hard-rock and industrial, made it mostly not-metal in my taxonomy. But my background monitoring of progressive metal and a few surviving Euro-metal bands kept me glancingly informed of the wider genre's status, and I was recently dragged in again, without intending to be, by the arrival of new and unexpectedly interesting Savatage and Helloween albums right before my record-buying trip to London, which resulted in my coming home with a lot of obscure progressive metal and then discovering, in the follow-up research to figure out what else I was missing, that I was actually missing quite a lot. Metal may temporarily be a commercial non-factor in this country, if you insist (as I do) on calling the bludgeoning Family Values Tour variant something else (my personal neologism, "crap", doesn't appear to have caught on yet), but in foreign enclaves like Scandinavia, Japan and Tampa, it's alive and in rather better shape than I'd realized. My binge-buying refresher course has turned up a lot of ludicrous nonsense, and quite a few bands I really like, two sets that aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.
Heavy metal is a highly stylized genre, so to enjoy it you will need to accept a large number of things that if there wasn't music behind them you probably wouldn't. I don't think metal demands any more aesthetic accommodation than rap, but I've so far failed to reconcile myself to enough of rap's stylistic affectations to enjoy much of it, so if you're not willing or able to do so for metal, I won't be surprised or offended. My own re-assimilation begins, appropriately enough, with one of these two pillars of my tastes (grinding heavy metal) directly intersecting with the other (thoughtful folk songs), and although architecturally pillars intersecting is not at all desirable, metaphorically somehow the structure stays up. This particular intersection is a cover, which I'm virtually certain I would not have recognized were it not for the words, of "The Sounds of Silence" on Dead Heart, In a Dead World, the fourth or fifth album by the band Nevermore, who have a Dutch web site and recorded the album in Texas but appear to actually be from Seattle. To enjoy this record you'll need to accept the metal-standard spiky logo font, a lot of songs in which the sixteenth notes that are not blackly marked-off by double-bass thumps are heavily outnumbered by the ones that are, creepy Edgar-Allan-Poe-via-Dave-McKean booklet art, song titles like "Narcosynthesis", "The Heart Collector" and "Engines of Hate", lots of Jeff Loomis' obtrusive show-off guitar-playing and Warrel Dane's alternately howling and shrieking vocals. In return, you get a grim, surging record that evokes a cross between old Voivod, old Megadeth and old Queensrÿche with unnerving specificity, right down to the swallowing-my-own-head vocal timbres in "We Disintegrate", the blockily percussive layout of "Inside Four Walls" (and a menacing voice-over about drug-law enforcement that could have come straight from Operation: Mindcrime), the strangled lead-guitar squalls and social paranoia of "Evolution 169", the "Silent Lucidity"-ish pomp of "The Heart Collector", the battering here's-what-NIN-should-have-sounded-like rant "Engines of Hate", and the surprisingly pretty near-power-ballad "Believe in Nothing".
But the centerpiece, clearly, is the Simon and Garfunkel cover. It's arguably identifiable for about the first fifteen seconds, as Loomis plays a slow, macabre translation of the melody hook twice, but then the band slams into full-throttle, mosh-inducing speed-metal thrash, and proceeds to beat the song to within a diminished fifth of its life. And maybe if you get the lyrics to "The Sounds of Silence" out and imagine, really hard, what a grisly metal version might sound like, you can start to see where the idea came from: "hello, darkness", "creeping", "seeds", "narrow streets", "cold and damp", "stabbed by the flash", "like a cancer", "neon god", "words of the prophets". But I've heard a lot of heavy metal covers of non-metal songs, and they almost never come out this well, and when they do it's usually largely because they're funny, and not always intentionally. In no small part because they pay so little attention to the arrangement of the original, Nevermore succeed for me in making it sound like this is the way the song was designed to be performed, as if S&G's quiet versions were the glib parlor tricks. Of course "People hearing without listening" is supposed to be screamed. Of course somebody is supposed to mutter "system check" in the middle of it. Of course the quoted bit ("'Fools', said I...") was meant to be moved to the end and barked through a distant megaphone. How did this song ever operate without crashing cymbals and machine-gun kick drums? Or finally, to look at it another way, metal has its revenge for what the Cardigans did to those Sabbath songs.
Kamelot: The Fourth Legacy
You have to be prepared to swallow a lot of reservations to put up with Kamelot, and no, I'm really not making up their name. Nor am I making up the fact that the cover of this 2000 album (there's also a newer one I haven't found yet) features a naked, symbol-tattooed, sword-wielding tawny blonde advancing up stone steps on her tiptoes into a torch-lit, rune-encrusted cavern of some unknown mystical liege. The lyrics are such a preposterous litany of medievalisms that I am genuinely surprised not to find at least one mention of Atlantis, nor anything borrowed from Tolkien. Kamelot turn out to be historical purists of a sort, basing those songs that have bases on Scheherezade's Arabia, Arthurian England, an Irish-coast widow's walk, Alexandria, Babylon, the Inquisition and a variety of sinister moonlit rituals. Musically, though, Kamelot are at least as effusive as Gamma Ray, Roxette or Wagner, every possible element overblown for maximum effect. Ex-Conception vocalist Roy Khan demonstrates more affinity with Styx than Slayer, and stray bits of folk and classical music suggest that Kamelot know more about the world than most of their songs opt to admit. Drummer Casey Grillo isn't at all unwilling to settle into double-bass rumble, but spells it periodically with odd percussion and some tricky tempo shifts. Miro, who co-produces with Sascha Paeth (who I know from producing Angra), supplies some extra keyboards and string arrangements. There's one song ("Glory") that starts off with a nylon-string guitar, and where I expect the bombast to start there's just a string quartet. But when Khan leans into the chorus of "Nights of Arabia", making it sound more than a little like "We can still rock in America", Kamelot give up any hope of being taken as grim, and I begin to wonder about my definitions. This is clearly a metal album, in idiom, but it's no less dedicated to sweeping melodies than Bette Midler or Britney Spears.
Symphony X: V
Metal's neo-classical possibilities are taken one step further towards their logical extreme by V, unsurprisingly the fifth album by New Jersey's Symphony X. For this one you'll need to accept a long concept album (subtitled "The New Mythology Suite") about, and I'm not making any of this up either, Atlantis, mystical life-energy from outer space and a confused collision of Greek and Egyptian pantheons. Despite Russell Allen's slightly bluesy wail and guitarist Michael Romero's nearly-endless twittery soloing, long stretches of this record strike me as the soundtrack pretty much everybody younger than John Williams wishes Star Wars had had, even if it meant that none of us ever got to play "Leia's Theme" in grade-school orchestra.
My metal survey has proceeded more fitfully than was probably necessary, due to my reasonably-intentioned attempts to guess which sub-sub-genres I'm not going to care about based on insufficient evidence. I expected, due to not liking Yngwie Malmsteen and not thinking "neo-classical" sounded like a very good idea, to dislike Symphony X and especially the similar-sounding and hilariously-named Finns Stratovarius. But I liked the goofy name of fellow Finns (and Nightwish label-mates) Sonata Arctica, and then liked their album, and then had to backtrack to investigate suggestions that Sonata Arctica were heavily influenced by Stratovarius. And Stratovarius turn out to be my third wildly exciting discovery, after ARK and Nightwish, of this pass through metal. Even more than Kamelot, Stratovarius are melodic extremists whose music I'd hate to have to explain to a machine how to categorize. If I hold my head at the right angle I can imagine that Stratovarius are a metal band less by conscious choice than because this is how you learn to play if you grow up in their Finnish town, so that this is pop in their dialect the same way Pizzicato Five, Selena and Westlife are pop in theirs. My neck hurts if I hold my head at that angle for very long, though, and when I put it level it's again obvious to me that Stratovarius are, in fact, a metal band, and their berserker melodies are fundamentally an expression of power in the same way that sword engravings are more martial than painterly, fortress ironwork more intimidation than sculpture, and kung-fu movies more violent than balletic (Jackie Chan notwithstanding). Raw power, after all, is less deadly than controlled power, and Stratovarius' ultra-precise extension of the legacies of Iron Maiden, the Scorpions, Gamma Ray, Rainbow, Judas Priest and Dio is about like signing your name on the roof of your enemy's headquarters in fighter-fly-by machine-gun fire.
You don't even have to accept much to appreciate Intermission, since its only concept is that after releasing it the band are taking a year off. To sustain their fans through this period, Intermission combines three new songs, an instrumental, one Judas Priest cover and two Rainbow covers, four bonus tracks from various editions of their 2000 album Infinite, two more from 1998's Destiny, one from 1996's Episode, and one new live recording. This album thus also functions as a mini-retrospective (although there are also a live album and a standard best-of). Of the new songs, "Will My Soul Ever Rest in Peace?" opens like "Dust in the Wind" but before long morphs into methodical metal crunch, "Falling Into Fantasy" is slow and emotive à la Rage for Order, and "The Curtains Are Falling" is fast and note-packed. Singer Timo Kotipelto's Finnish-accented English singing at times bears a disconcerting resemblance to Midge Ure, and at others soars off in the direction of Dio and Bruce Dickinson. Stratovarius have a full-time keyboard player (Malmsteen veteran Jens Johansson), who contributes a lot of atmosphere, sound effects and miscellaneous filigree to their arrangements, but drummer Jörg Michael can piston his feet as well as anybody when asked to, and guitarist/primary-songwriter/producer Timo Tolkki is less apt to let soloing take over the songs than Symphony X's Romero, but certainly isn't afraid to play quickly. "Bloodstone", the Judas Priest cover, is weirdly spare by Stratovarius' standards, but they give themselves a little freer rein with the two Rainbow covers, Johansson lacing "Kill the King" with seething Hammond and Kotipelto cheerfully hogging the spotlight for the live performance of "I Surrender".
The earlier-album outtakes are predictably varied. Of the four from Infinite, "Keep the Flame" is a touching piano love-song and Kotipelto's "What Can I Say" is a subdued power-ballad, but Johansson's Scorpions-ish "Why Are We Here?" writhes and sparkles, and the shamelessly Euro-metal gallop "It's a Mystery" is bouncy and flamboyant. "Dream With Me", from Destiny, builds from acoustic quiet to massive power-chords in traditional metal fashion, but "Cold Winter Nights", the other one from the same album, is a giddy extrapolation from Iron Maiden through Gamma Ray. Only "When the Night Meets the Day", from Episode, never quite finds its pace for me.
But the last track, the live one, promptly takes over as my favorite version of what was already (after a quick twinge of regret that it's not an a-ha cover) my favorite Stratovarius song, "Hunting High and Low", the opening track on Infinite. Popular music exists mainly to deliver perfect, soaring choruses, I think (although this assertion, too, is another way of estimating the limits of my tastes), and that's where for me genre lines basically vanish. "Hunting High and Low" equals "Rainbow in the Dark" equals "She Doesn't Live Here Anymore" equals "Crush Story" equals "Are You Happy Now?" equals "Happy Girl" in whatever math I try to apply. And in their grip, I forget that these identities aren't inherent properties of music, forget that genres can be boundaries anybody (even me) would ever be reluctant to cross.
Sonata Arctica: Ecliptica
And if Stratovarius is taking a year off, Sonata Arctica (who also have a new album, Silence, due out imminently) have picked an excellent time to attempt to fill the void. As of Ecliptica, their 2000 debut, they're still clearly new at what they do. With experience will come, I expect, a little more vocal resonance, a little more discretion about whether or not to cram every measure full of keyboard flurries, rhythms that sacrifice some speed in the interest of suppleness, and perhaps some self-consciousness about their band-name. But I hope wisdom comes slowly. Stratovarius is a good enough idea for a relatively immature version to be compelling as contrast. To me Sonata Arctica's naïveté and impatience are essential. The arcing choruses of "Replica", on which everybody seems to concentrate on backing vocals so intently that they almost forget to keep playing their instruments, is primal and now firmly lodged in my head. "Letter to Dana", a fantastically ill-advised conflation of the lyric tropes "I saw your picture on the cover of a pornographic magazine", "I'm writing to tell you that your parents have died" and "I know I promised I'd love you forever but I'm trying to change my mind", rescues itself with a few crucially awkward turns of phrase and an unexpected ending that extricates the narrator from his indecision after all. "UnOpened", the single that catapulted Sonata Arctica to regional celebrity and just enough international note for me to find about them, is frantic neo-Iron Maiden lit by manic synth-harpsichord twinkle. And "Destruction Preventer", the finale, starts out like it's going to essay Marillion-esque atmosphere, but quickly thinks better of it and snaps into a glorious baroque sprint. "Yeah yeah yea-aaaah" Tony Kakko wails towards the end, momentarily abandoning any pretense at composure in favor of letting in the wandering animae of Dio, Dickinson, Plant, Meine, Hansen and anybody else who's ever been willing to stand at the edge of a stage in skin-tight pants and sing so high that a medical student in the third row glances automatically at the singer's crotch to see if his testicles have retreated.
Eidolon: Hallowed Apparition
And although most of the revelations in this batch have been progressive metal, hyper-melodic metal, symphonic metal or metal-with-female-singers, I did also discover Eidolon, a recent Canadian signing to Metal Blade (not to be confused with the short-lived early-Nineties Jade Tree emo band of the same name) who look and sound reassuringly like all the awful Metal Blade bands I doted on fifteen years ago. Their logo font is nearly unreadable, the cover art is of morbid-teenager notebook-doodle maturity (although, to be fair, neither approaches the graphic nadir of early Voivod), and the music, while it does have melodies, is about 83% crunch and 11% everybody-else-go-into-a-holding-pattern-while-I-shred. Apparently the Drover brothers, guitarist Glen and drummer Shawn (who also self-produce), didn't think singer Brian Soulard was doing their vision justice, as following the album's release he was released as well, and the band are now searching for a new vocalist. This isn't much of a vote of confidence in your catalog ("Buy our albums, featuring the singer we don't think was good enough!"), but Soulard's singing on Hallowed Apparition and its predecessor Nightmare World seems perfectly fine and appropriate to me. Not especially versatile, perhaps, and maybe singing at the limits of his abilities, but b) performing at the limits of your abilities is what every artist should try to do, and a) Eidolon don't strike me as a very versatile band overall, either, and I don't think it matters. The great mass of bands is infinitely versatile, so I don't need any one band to do more than one thing, if they do it with commitment and flair. And Eidolon is as solid and deliciously menacing a plodding, convention-adherent metal band as, say, Hallow's Eve, Armored Saint, Metal Church or Sabbath during the Lean Years. I used to buy samplers full of music like this and wonder, a little worried, if everybody (including me) was just eventually going to grow up and forget about it, like hidden kingdoms crumbling because they ran out of children to believe in them. And then MTV canceled Headbanger's Ball and I thought I'd been right to worry. But here Eidolon are, not crossing over into anything, not transforming metal into some shimmery new creature, just stomping their way through songs for which there's no more meaningful reaction than to bang your head, obdurately, on the hateful empty space that always lurks a foot in front of it.