Metal Gets Rhythm
Seriously, "Christgrinding Avenue"
From what I can tell, the metal album that's found the most critical love this year seems to be The Apostasy, the new one from the Polish blackened death metal band Behemoth. In fact, the past couple of months have seen Behemoth cross over as much as a Polish blackened death metal band could possibly hope to cross over in America, headlining the Ozzfest second stage and scraping the bottom of the Billboard 200. And the acclaim the band has found is totally justified; The Apostasy is a seriously impressive piece of work. Frontman Nergal has a rumbling menace in his voice that goes way beyond the usual Cookie-Monster death-metal roar, and the album's production is almost shockingly full. The Darth Vader horns that pop up on "Arcana Hereticae" and the howling choirs on "Slaying the Prophets Ov Isa" are recorded with a symphonic grandeur that makes them sound that much more evil. Also, the album ends with a song called "Christgrinding Avenue," which might be the most awesome song title in the history of song titles, more for the "Avenue" part than the "Christgrinding" part. But for reasons that are probably more my fault than Behemoth's, I can't get too into The Apostasy. It takes a whole lot of experience and immersion to develop an ear for the twisting, roiling structures in death-metal, and I just don't have it. My big stumbling-block with the album is the drums. The album has rhythm, at least some of the time, but that rhythm doesn't come from the drums; it comes from the guitars, which play hard, precise riffs when they aren't bothering themselves with scrabbling cat-in-blender solos. But for the most part, the drums just maintain a constant double-bass barrage, a jackhammering chaos way too busy to concern itself with elemental concepts like groove. And that lack of groove keeps me at arm's length. For a metal record to achieve the sort of punishing force that I love, its riffs need enough space to really punch me in the face. The Apostasy might not have that sense of space and rhythm, but a couple of fairly new metal albums do: High on Fire's Death Is This Communion and Baroness's Red Album.
High on Fire is the sort of band that does exactly one thing and does it very, very well, and there's a certain honor in that sort of single-minded pursuit of an ideal sound. In this case, the veteran Oakland trio plays a huge, intense, galloping strain of doom-metal that owes more to Motorhead than it does to Sabbath. Frontman Matt Pike actually sounds a whole lot like Lemmy; he's got that same throat-shredded tough-guy howl. But the band's songs are typically longer and more complicated than most Motorhead tracks: multipart constructions that never feel strung-together because the band keeps snapping back into the same hammering riffs. Pike plays screaming, tumultuous solos, but those solos never detract from the targeted pummel that surrounds them. Death Is This Communion is the band's fourth album, but the band hasn't bothered to tweak its sound much. The only new tricks here are a short drum-solo instrumental that actually kind of kicks ass and a new strain of Middle-Eastern minor-scale mysticism on a few of the songs; every so often, a winding acoustic guitar even finds its way into the onslaught. But Death Is This Communion ultimately doesn't sound much different from Blessed Black Wings, its immediate predecessor, and that's just fine with me. This is overwhelmingly, primally satisfying stuff, and there's really no reason for the band to do a whole lot to change it.
Voice review: Adam Ganderson on High on Fire's Death Is This Communion Voice review: High on Fire at the Knitting Factory Voice review: George Smith on High on Fire's Blessed Black Wings
Like High on Fire, Baroness fits sort of uncomfortably into the doom-metal genre-tag, but Baroness's approach is a whole lot more nuanced than High on Fire's constant pound. The Georgia band has put out a couple of EPs, but Red Album is their first full-length, and it's a total monster, huge in scope and ambition. Frontman John Baizley doesn't scream or snarl, for one thing; he actually sings, and he does it in this open-throated screaming-at-the-sky bellow that just kills me. Like just about every other good metal band working, Baroness have a whole lot of prog running through their veins, but unlike most of those other bands, they've got at least as much Southern rock in there as well, so the odd time-signatures and counterintuitive changeups have an unpretentious greasy swing to them. The riffs crunch hard, but they do it with an understated, almost funky glide, and it always sounds natural and practically effortless even when they're lurching from one movement into another. The band never comes across as being theatrically evil or overbearingly eager to display their technical chops; instead, they let their songs breathe and drift of their own accord, radiating menace and contentment in equal measure. When I'm in the right mood, this stuff goes beyond satisfying and becomes somehow moving. Both Red Album and Death Is This Communion came out in September on Relapse Records, the hugely important underground-metal indie-label that took a big hit last year when flagship act Mastodon left to sign with a major. If these two albums are any indication, Relapse is going to be just fine.
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