A testament! Born out of desperation!
Well, this is convenient. It took a while for any really good 2008 albums to finally hit retail shelves; the winter doldrums are a bitch that way. But two albums that came out on Tuesday finally ended the drought, and both of them work variations on a crusty old-school metal aesthetic. My favorite metal albums of 2007 all depended, on one way or another, on some form of prog-rock frippery: Baroness’s searching sludgy bong-rock, Jesu’s depressive emo/shoegaze dreamscapes, Watain’s icy classicist ambience. When bands manage to make that fantastical pretension work for them, the results can be stunning, as they are on all three of those albums. But I really love the way both Saviours and Disfear manage to strip all that away, concentrating on rhythmic pummel and riff-centric propulsion rather than virtuosic meditations on their own despair or whatever. Both bands play styles of metal that’ve been done to death by scores of other bands in decades past, but both find ways to inject life and purpose and urgency into those forms. This is utilitarian stuff; neither band does a whole lot to challenge anyone. But after a month of absolutely nothing, it comes as blessed relief to hear both bands vengefully plying their trades. Even though Saviours’ Into Abaddon and Disfear’s Live the Storm are two vastly different albums from two vastly different bands, I’m going to have a tough time thinking of them as separate parts of a crushingly rewarding whole.
Saviours, an Oakland-based stoner quartet, often get derided as being hipster-metal, which is fair enough: like their Kemado labelmates the Sword, they lean hard on unrepentantly retro 70s boogie-metal riffage, keeping their tempos somewhere between doomy plod and power-metal gallop. And as with the Sword, it’s easy to imagine the band finding an audience outside the extreme-metal diehard set. For this band, the riff is everything. Vocals tend to disappear from their songs for long stretches, and anyway the vocals and drums and bass are almost always buried in the mix, making room for a whole lot of guitars. Those guitars are big and chunky and repetitive, and when they lock into a groove, they devastate. But Saviours like to pull the same trick as Mastodon often does: rather than playing actual songs with structures and choruses and stuff, they settle into geometric patterns and then, without warning, switch up their time-signatures and lurch off into some other groove. It always sort of throws me off when they abandon one beat for another; it’s hard to get comfortable listening to the band. But they don’t bash you over the head with their technical proficiency; when the solos come, they’re brief and perfunctory and refreshingly short on show-offy virtuosity. I’m willing to bet actual money that one of the songs on Into Abaddon ends up in Guitar Hero 4; the band has a right mix of rhythmic repetition and structural unpredictability pretty much perfect for that game. Listening to Into Abaddon, I can’t close my eyes without picturing colored dots flying at me.
But as intuitively heavy as Into Abaddon might be, it’s got nothing on the glorious adrenaline-rush intensity of Live the Storm. Disfear is a Swedish hardcore band that’s been around for just about forever. They broke up for a while in the late 90s before returning a few years ago, with former At the Gates frontman and melodic death-metal OG Tomas Lindberg now fronting them. For this album, they’ve added a former Entombed guitarist to their ranks. But even if two members of the band have their roots in hyper-technical death-metal, Disfear stays on some greasy simplistic biker-rock shit, rarely leaving room for guitar-wheedles or breakdowns. The obvious precedents here are Motorhead and Discharge; the tempos are fast and hammering, the guitars hyper-distorted and vaguely scary, the indulgent moments nonexistent. Lindberg’s kept his scorching yowl firmly intact, and this album makes an argument that the standard death-metal Cookie Monster growl sounds a whole lot better on music that isn’t death-metal. Half the choruses on the album are basement-show gang-chant shoutalongs, as catchy and fun as they are punishing and intimidating. The guitars sometimes shift into triumphal In Flames mode, but the band’s lower-register rumble prevents them from ever getting cheesy. Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou produces, and he gives Disfear his own band’s cinematic skree, walking a thin line between compressed thud and grimy squall. And so Live the Storm brings just about everything I could possibly want from a metal album: pick-slides, dense and rumbling riffs, Ted Nugent caveman-solos, youth-crew call-and-response chants, epic pseudo-tribal drumming, vein-popping screams, incomprehensible lyrics that seem to be about staying true to yourself, song-lengths that generally stay in the three-minute range. Hooks. This thing absolutely slays, and I sort of can’t believe it exists.