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Waiting (Impatiently) for Earthquakes
In Flames: Clayman
One of the most interesting and unexpected discoveries obsessive immersion in obscure artistic subgenres has led me to is that although some of the examples of specialized forms I end up liking best could probably be deduced from my tastes outside of that specialization, there are almost always some that could not. We could probably have predicted, for example, even reckoning solely from my non-metal tastes, that Nightwish's combination of surging Scandinavian power-metal instrumentation and soaringly operatic female vocals would appeal to me. (Although whether we would have been able to guess that I'd react most strongly to Nightwish, in particular, and not Edenbridge or Within Temptation or Tristania, I'm less sure.) Conversely, I'm fairly confident we wouldn't have been especially optimistic about In Flames' chances. This isn't speculation, in fact: I'm pretty insistent that singers sing, and In Flames was thus on the long list of death-metal bands with non-singing vocalists that I didn't plan to waste much time investigating. As I should probably have learned by now, though, an inexorably acquisitive curiosity slowly transforms all lists of anything, in my life, into shopping lists. A list of bands I don't need to investigate is thus self-defeating. Arguably that's exactly as it should be, at least in this case, since "don't need to investigate" was always a suspicious judgment formed explicitly in ignorance. But it means I got to a whole lot of new metal bands before I finally broke down and bought an In Flames album, and maybe I never would have if there hadn't been an import copy of their live album with an adorable little jigsaw puzzle affixed to it lingering seductively in the "New Imports" bin at Newbury Comics for so many weeks. Here were the stages in my capitulation: 1) "In Flames is one of those death-metal bands I wouldn't like, so I don't need this record. It's cute, though." 2) "Hey, they've still got a copy of that cute In Flames album that I don't need, because I wouldn't like it. I'll just pick it up to see what it feels like. Oh look, it's a live album. I'd certainly never buy a live album by a band I wouldn't like to begin with." 3) "Heavy metal bands are particularly prone to overestimating the importance of their own concert performances, so it's almost never smart to start with a live album, anyway." 4) "So I should start with one of the In Flames studio records first, instead of this."
If you avoid metal with any kind of method, In Flames is hardly likely to slip through your screens by accident. The band is composed of five eminently scruffy-looking guys from Sweden, and it's a very simple rule of thumb that you should never trust a Scandinavian band unless at least forty percent of its membership could appear in peppy skin-care commercials. The early albums feature the band's name in an entirely illegible logo-font, and the artwork, although technically quite adept, displays about the same level of juvenile refinement as early Voivod covers. By Clayman, their fifth or sixth studio album, in 2000, they have adopted a readable logo, and the cover illustration is a da Vinci-esque eight-limbed spread-eagle, but he's screaming, and there's some kind of flaming demon behind him, and the US release is on Nuclear Blast and there are still five of them and they're still scruffy and Swedish.
But vocalist Anders Friden's tearing-flesh howl is not the dopey Cookie-Monster growl that renders so much death-metal so laughable, it's more like a troop of grim spirits made a nighttime round of sleeping old-school metal singers (Halford, Dickinson and Dio, for starters, and then however many others they could hit before dawn) and robbed them of only their throat noises, leaving their capacities for pitch behind as worthless. The music around him is bass-heavy and pounding, but also intently melodic, as often reminiscent of the Scorpions or Iron Maiden as of Emperor or Entombed, and produced and co-arranged by power-metal veteran Fredrik Nordström with none of death-metal's usual echoey, momentum-killing empty-catacomb gloom. I am surprised and pleased to realize that while I still like my metal to have both vocals and melody, they don't have to be supplied by the same element. Friden's howls here are a textural layer on top of Björn Gelotte and Jesper Strömblad's guitars, the combination of which is melodic, in much the same way that a kick-drum synched to a bass guitar produces composite tuned percussion. If you don't like overwhelming guitar distortion or constant crash-cymbal hiss, of course, this guttural scraping noise is probably not going to be any more appealing, but In Flames wasn't where I was going to start trying to convert you to metal, anyway.
And maybe you think you don't care, but you haven't seen how much I enjoy this. Nightwish remains my favorite new metal discovery, but In Flames might have leaped into second on a long list. "Bullet Ride" skids through its rumbling choruses with a gravel-spraying aplomb that the guys who film truck-commercials, at least, think has wide appeal. The crunching verses of "Pinball Map" sound like a demon-host assault anthem, but the chorus riffs are no less expansive than The Nutcracker Suite. The sawing guitar-runs that slash through the surging "Only for the Weak" aren't structurally too different from Tom Scholz's on "More Than a Feeling", even if they do sound like the guitar-ship is crash-landing on your head. The galloping choruses of "...As the Future Repeats Today" edge towards Skyclad's folk-metal fusion. "Square Nothing" is Slayer-relentless, but the clattering, propulsive, swooping "Clay Man" has learned its lessons from sources as various as Ministry, Black Sabbath, Rush and Gamma Ray, and at the ends of the chorus lines Friden even slips and bangs his head on a recognizable note or two. Tendrils of neo-classical guitar float into quiet moments of "Sattelites and Astronauts", perhaps in the hopes of apologizing for the misspelling of "satellites". "Brush the Dust Away" invokes old Megadeth, but the pealing "Swim" is almost flowery, with guitar hooks that would be on the epic order of "You Can Still Rock in America" if the rhythm grind around them didn't beat them down to "You Can Still Chew Off Your Own Left Leg If You Get Frozen Into a Glacier". A cursory attempt at topicality, "Suburban Me", is impossible to follow unless you read along on the lyric sheet, but much more fun (and probably more cogent) if you to try to ascribe words to it just from listening. And "Another Day in Quicksand", the finale, bears down and blasts through the last few minutes with impatient gusto, as if the lemmings have caught their first scent of the ocean, and know they're only seconds from flight.
Shadow: Shadow
There are, for all I know, four hundred and twelve other bands exactly like In Flames. No doubt I will end up tracking down every last one of them. For the moment, though, the only one I've found that I like almost as much as In Flames is Shadow, who on their first and so-far-only album (on Spikefarm, the angrier wing of Nightwish and Sonata Arctica's Finnish label Spinefarm) sound almost exactly like a slightly faster and heavier In Flames, but turn out to be Japanese, and if the credits are to be believed the guttural vocalist is female, although I defy anybody to identify gender characteristics in this noise. Guitarist Yuichi Sumimoto seems to be a little more inclined towards simpler rhythm-guitar parts and more complicated soloing, drummer Mishuhiro Enomoto keeps both feet firmly on the kick-drum pedals more of the time, and vocalist T. Shimamoto doesn't lapse into notes even as often as Anders Friden, but the songs wait for no one, and I enjoy this album best if I segue into it directly after an In Flames record, as if things are spinning slowly further out of control. No lyrics are provided for Shadow, and you're doing better than me if you can decipher more than two or three lines per song, but I do note from the track listing that Shimamoto can spell "satellite".
Lacuna Coil: Unleashed Memories
I'd learned to be leery of "goth"-anything, and I hadn't liked any music from Italy since Rondo' Veneziano, but for a few weeks after discovering Nightwish I fell into a delirium of buying anything I could find that claimed to be some kind of metal band with some kind of pretty female vocals. Combining these two elements, however, turns out to be a lot harder than just including them on the same recording, and the only other group of this description to which I've formed a get-the-other-records attachment is the Italian goth-metal band Lacuna Coil, who remind me less of Nightwish than a heavier and somewhat more world-aware Rose Chronicles. The combination of Marco Coti Zelati's slab-like bass/guitar/keyboard progressions and male vocalist Andrea Ferro's oblique backing parts sets up a proscenium for female vocalist Cristina Scabbia's oddly Dolores-Riordian-like singing, but the production sands down the details of her delivery with reverb instead of highlighting them, with the result that these songs, even when they could easily have been vicious and immediate, instead have an odd, swirling reticence. In my favorite moments, like the roaring choruses of the solemn "Purify", the sweeping verses of the Italian "Senzafine", the jumps from Ferro's exaggerated growl to Scabbia's exaggerated flutter on the sinuous "1:19", the skeletal drum-machine rattle on "Cold Heritage", the stair-step chord-changes of "A Current Obsession" and the distracted tailing-off of "Wave of Anguish", the band's careful discipline seems tinged with melancholy, as if they are standing at the door of a glittering parlor they're upholding a centuries-old family compact not to enter.
Gamma Ray: No World Order
Nothing remotely resembling discipline interferes with the latest mad stampede towards booming metal grandeur by gleefully histrionic German Euro-metal stalwarts Gamma Ray. Fellow travelers Helloween made a concerted effort to mute their native silliness on their new album, The Dark Ride, but Gamma Ray leader Kai Hansen seems to believe that quitting Helloween to start Gamma Ray, in the first place, constitutes all the anti-silliness any one shrieking German Euro-metal singer can be expected to contribute in a career, and so No World Order blazes cheerfully into an incoherent conspiracy-dolt concept-suite. "Induction", the opening track, features a stern men's choir intoning "Illuminati!" in apparent obliviousness to the precipice of "Bohemian Rhapsody" self-parody upon which they teeter. "Dethrone Tyranny" is a call-to-arms with the approximate emotional sophistication of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. A hammering Born Again-era Sabbath arrangement for track three is happily squandered on unicorn lyrics and the memorably botched declaration "In squished imagination catastrophies unfurl!", which would be embarrassing even if it were spelled better. "Heaven or Hell" violates one of the most basic rules of modern metal songwriting (do not re-use Black Sabbath titles). "No World Order" itself is a tour de force of inept portentousness, including one verse ("We live inside society, our presence is unknown. / We plot and we manipulate you to which way to go. / Illumination comes across the world to bring an end, / Intimidating silent force that puts us in command.") that ought to have been enough to talk them out of the whole idea, and a mispronunciation of the noun form of "illuminates" with a long "a" that I'd have forgiven with a smirk if they'd rhymed it with anything but itself. "The demon is corroding my brain!", Hansen yelps at one point in the irrepressibly and nonsensically bouncy "Damn the Machine". "Solid" is such a meat-headed war anthem that I feel like siding with the enemy even though they're non-existent aliens. "Fire Below" attempts Dio/Sabbath rumble again, and manages to make "Rainbow in the Dark" sound literary. But twinkling keyboards light up the sprinting "Follow Me", old-fashioned Metal-Blade churn powers the battering "Eagle", and the episodic "Lake of Tears" racks through Gamma Ray's repertoire of metal-pomp cliches like an eight-year-old showing off his collection of Japanese Pokémon foils neither of you can read. And the truth is, by the time I notice that the space-ships on the back cover are shaped like dollar signs I've long since stopped caring how many axes this record is dumb along. I don't turn to Gamma Ray for social criticism or historical perspective, I turn to them for failures of judgment on the most ostentatious possible scale. I turn to them when I want to be chased down the street by a sweaty six-foot-two leprechaun wearing silver spandex pants and brandishing a splintered mallet handle with a Fabergé egg duct-taped to the end of it.
Sonata Arctica: Silence
Gamma Ray better be watchful, as Finnish Stratovarius disciples Sonata Arctica's second album, Silence, finds them beginning to encroach on Gamma Ray's territory as well. Gamma Ray have tradition on their side, and an accumulated weight of magnificent foolishness. Sonata Arctica initially seem to have just about everything else. They are younger and quicker, and what they lack in Kai Hansen's encyclopedic grasp of metal clichés they appear to make up for in the novice's freeing lack of perspective, which allows them to open this album of dizzying power-hook overload with such a rapturously ill-advised lyrical theme as the emasculative properties of the internet ("Weballergy"; "You must keep it real to find her"). "Wolf & Raven" shows a useful knack for caricature-ish allegory, and I believe the ten-minute epic "The Power of One" is based on Bryce Courtenay's book. And there's some line in "Last Drop Falls" about walking around without underwear. For a moment it's even possible to imagine Sonata Arctica one day rivaling Helloween for sheer hyper-metallic inanity.
But then I start examining the lyrics to these songs more closely, and discover an unsettling ugliness. The line in "Last Drop Falls" I thought for sure I was mishearing as "Now that I have found the whore in you / Why can't I tell you no?" turns out to be exactly that, and more than half of these songs revolve around relationship violence and vengeance for perceived offenses. Arguably "False News Travel Fast" is merely menacing, "San Sebastian" is just sad, and "Last Drop Falls" stops short of spelling out its conclusion, but "Sing in Silence" is a bitter denunciation of an addict, "Tallulah" is a dangerously confused break-up/reconciliation plea, and "The End of This Chapter", unless there's some metaphorical angle I'm totally overlooking, is a stalker tale from the ex-boyfriend's perspective that ends with him killing the girl. I'm not quite willing to write Sonata Arctica off as reprehensible misogynists, since they may have meant these songs to be provocatively topical and just aren't that good at it yet, but I want this kind of outwardly exuberant music to be mindless and fun lyrically, as well, and snorting at Gamma Ray's cartoon cabalism is a lot closer to both than sitting through Silence trying to decide how queasy it ought to be making me.
Ozzy Osbourne: Down to Earth
But if some of the new bands don't pan out, it's no great disaster. Plenty of the old ones are still going. More than three decades on from Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne is a summer-package-tour patriarch firmly enough entrenched in the global music business for the opening thank-yous in the credits to this album to be a short salute to his multinational label and a full paragraph dedicated to Mariah Carey's ex-husband, who Ozzy insists is "a gentleman and a friend". It's been long enough since the last record, though, that I guess I'd begun to assume he was done generating new material, and planned to just finish out his touring career (which he has repeatedly threatened to end, anyway) playing the back-catalog. But no, here is a new album. A cynic might have expected Ozzy to mine his tour stable for hot new band-recruits to provide an instant credibility update, and such a cynic would be partly right, as he did sign up ex-Faith No More and sometimes-Korn drummer Mike Bordin and Suicidal Tendencies/Infectious Grooves bassist Robert Trujillo, but both of them have already been playing with him on tour for several years by this point, and "new" guitarist Zakk Wylde has now been with Ozzy since the late Eighties. And for the most part they don't bother trying to "update" Ozzy much, anyway. Surrounded by several generations of bands who have tried to sound variously like him, Ozzy is relevant almost by definition. The low, throbbing urgency that drives most of these new songs is a thread that, however many younger bands it runs through, started with Paranoid and Master of Reality. If anything, Down to Earth is the most Sabbath-like of Ozzy's post-Sabbath albums, returning after all this time to the sinister Sabbath atmosphere that he and Randy Rhoads dispensed with for his first few comparatively spry and trebly solo records. And so "Gets Me Through" begins with an explicit nod to his old self, before stomping through an earnest, blaring tribute to his fans' loyalty. "Facing Hell" is faster than what a young Iommi would have written, but Ozzy's vocal delivery is straight out of "After Forever" or "Lord of This World". The becalmed, string-buoyed ballad "Dreamer" verges on the Beatlesque, but "No Easy Way Out" is a little like "War Pigs" or "Iron Man" redone with modern fidelity. "That I Never Had" studiously resists the temptation to veer off into Rhoads-grade effusion, instead letting the choruses curl back in on the song, reinforcing it (and pointing out, at least to me, one of the Sabbath tricks that Voivod relied on). "You Know... (Part 1)" is just a fragment, but the keening "Junkie" might be a belated PSA atonement for "Sweet Leaf". The verses of "Running Out of Time" are pretty generic, but Ozzy's multi-tracked voice transforms the standard-issue rock chorus into something shambling and noble. "Black Illusion" bears co-writing credits for both long-time Sabbath keyboardist Geoff Nichols and ex-Jellyfish songwriter Andy Sturmer, but unless they took turns porting over measures of "Neon Knights" I don't know why. "Alive" is erratic and seething, but "Can You Hear Them?" burrows back in time once more, and if I squint my ears properly I can almost hear Ozzy muttering "I think it was true it was people like you that crucified Christ" again. And as the band carries him out, as vital a hero as he ever was pissing on the Alamo, and as haplessly human as he was trying to make an omelet for Penelope Spheeris, I'm left here, lost in the sprawling genre he could never have guessed he was creating, proud of us for every line we've blurred between ugly and ecstatic, malevolent and redemptive, or nihilistic and absolutely certain, and starting to make the list of the ones still left.
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