Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Top 10 Death Metal Vocalists of All Time

It's been months since I've written a top 10 list, and that just won't do. So here's a list that feels so fundamentally appropriate for this blog that I can barely believe I haven't done it already. First, I'll give you the actual list itself. Then, I'd like to share a few thoughts and/or realizations I had as I wrote this. And so here are (just in my opinion, obviously) the top 10 death metal vocalists of all time:

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#10. Peter Tägtgren (Hypocrisy)

Peter Tägtgren is probably the best overall musician on this list. A guitarist as well as a prolific songwriter and producer, he's played a big role in creating a lot of of Swedish metal. He's most prominent as the core member of Hypocrisy, where he's done some really great work, but what really convinced me of his vocal prowess was his absolutely ferocious delivery on the Bloodbath album Nightmares Made Flesh.




#9. John McEntee (Incantation)

After a slightly bumpy transitional period, Incantation founder and lead guitarist John McEntee eventually took over vocal duties for the band in 2004. It was a good decision, as he proved to deliver a powerful guttural roar to rival anyone in the business. He struck again this year with Dirges of Elysium, one of the best death metal records of 2014.





#8. Karl Sanders (Nile)
Nile are a band that, while solid, have rarely lived up to the promise of their truly awesome premise. That said, Karl Sanders' demonic vocal assault has always been a strong point in the band's favor. His delivery is consistently excellent, but if I were to recommend one Nile album to check out, it would be Black Seeds of Vengeance.





#7. Piotr Paweł "Peter" Wiwczarek (Vader)
Peter has quite possibly the most distinctive sound of any prominent death metal vocalist. His singular, unmistakeable, and highly articulate bellows have been the foundation of Vader's fantastic discography for over two decades. Stunningly for a group with such a long track record, Vader's recent output has been amongst the best in the band's history. Welcome to the Morbid Reich, especially, stands as a modern death metal classic.



#6. John Tardy (Obituary)
Obituary have long occupied a special place for me personally, as they were my first introduction to real old-school, no-frills death metal. Recently I finally got the chance to see them live. They did not disappoint. Even after a quarter of a century, Tardy's disgusting vomiting-blood vocals still stand out as the centerpiece of Obituary's distinctive sound. The band's sophomore effort Cause of Death, a vital classic of the genre, stands as their (and his) greatest work to date.



#5. Mikael Åkerfeldt (Opeth)
Like Tägtgren, Åkerfeldt did what were probably his best death vocals on a Bloodbath record. However, his Opeth vocal work (both growled and clean) has long been truly outstanding as well. Recently, Opeth has moved away from death vocals, and Åkerfeldt has stated that he is no longer capable of delivering the deep, monstrous, strikingly clear roars for which he has become famous. That's sad news, but it does nothing to diminish the extant collection of marvelous vocals he's already recorded. Blackwater Park  was the album that first introduced me to him, and it's a great place to start if you're looking to discover the brilliance of Opeth.


#4. Johan Hegg (Amon Amarth)
Not only is Hegg a powerhouse vocalist, he's one of the best live frontmen in the business. The towering picture of Viking brutality is everything a death metal vocalist should be. His mead-fueled roars are amongst the clearest and most articulate in the genre, his stage-presence is colossal, and his consistency is beyond reproach. Every single Amon Amarth record is good, but for me their pinnacle thus far is 2006's fantastic With Oden on Our Side.


#3. Frank Mullen (Suffocation)
A powerhouse live performer known for his distinctive "hand chops", Mullen is most notable as the father of brutal death vocals. His rabid, violent, gut-wrenching baritone bellows inspired a generation of imitators. Like with every other element of Suffocation's sound, the army of copycats have failed to capture the blend of power, precision, complexity, and animalistic intensity that make Mullen's vocals so great. Suffocation released three great albums in the '90s before going on hiatus. They've been back in action and doing excellent work for years, but those early classics still stand as the highlights of their career. Effigy of the Forgotten  is my personal favorite.


#2. George "Corpsegrinder" Fisher (Cannibal Corpse)
By all rights, Fisher should probably be at the top of this list. He's the absolute prototype of the ideal death metal frontman. On stage and in the studio, Corpsegrinder does everything the way it should be done. Much of Cannibal Corpse's status as the default standard of American death metal is the result of his meaty, powerful delivery and commanding stage presence. Fisher's vocals are especially notable for their sustain, as he is able to hold exceptionally long notes. Much like Vader, Cannibal Corpse's long discography has seen some of its best entries in recent years. Check out this year's A Skeletal Domain  as proof. Oh, and Corpsegrinder is such an avid Horde player in World of Warcraft that Blizzard actually named an orc questgiver after him. Lok'tar Ogar!


#1. Craig Pillard (Incantation)
Many of you may find this an odd choice for top honors. After all, most (probably all) of these other men are more famous, more influential, and more prolific than Pillard. Many of them are great live, while I've never seen him perform. Those factors could have easily pointed me in a different direction. On top of that, I've read some pretty disturbing Nazi-politics-stuff from Pillard, so as a person I think he's got some fucked-up views. However, at the end of the day, I had to ask myself one simple question: who do I think has the best sounding vocals in death metal? The answer to that one is easy. Craig Pillard's deep, guttural, unholy roars are positively monstrous. They're awesome, crushing, earth-shaking thunder from the bowels of Hell. Most recently, he has appeared with his new band Disma. However, he made his bones as the original frontman for Incantation. Their debut, Onward to Golgotha, stands as my single favorite pure death metal album of all time.

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So now that you've seen the list, here are some remarks I'd like to make.

First off, there are some notable exclusions. Angela Gossow (sorry Arch Enemy fans) didn't make the list. I know she's the most prominent female death vocalist ever, but the novelty of being a woman in a sphere dominated by men isn't enough to elevate her to the ranks of the death metal elite. Also, and more significantly, you many notice I didn't include Chuck Schuldiner. Admittedly, leaving the patron saint of death metal off this list may seem unjustifiable. However, I'd like to point out that this list was based on these individuals as vocalists: songwriting and musicianship were not a factor. Those later qualities were what really made Schuldiner great, so by excluding them he slid off the list. There were numerous other people I could have included, too, but in the end 10 is a small enough number that I had to weed out some pretty elite names.

Second, I noticed as I wrote this that my initial selection of names was heavily biased in favor of vocalists I've seen perform live. I think that, more so than for any other member in a band, stage presence really factors into a vocalist's greatness. However, I did try to avoid letting that dominate my judgement. In the end, while I do think the order was affected by live performances, nobody was included or excluded from the top 10 based on them.

Finally, I noticed that while I love old-school Swedish death metal, I never seriously considered any of the vocalists from the "Big 3" of the style. Guitar is really at the core of that sound, even more so than for other varieties of death metal, so most of those vocalists just didn't have the same kind of impact as their American counterparts. Instead, amongst the Swedes, I found myself gravitating toward the more articulate sounds of melodeath frontmen. That may have been partially a result of personal bias, but I really do think those vocalists just have a hugely valuable impact on the sounds of their respective bands.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Blut Aus Nord - Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry

The French black metallers Blut Aus Nord have a good but slightly inconsistent track record going back two decades. Following on the heels of their 777 trilogy, which got pretty mixed responses from their fans, the band have returned to with a third "Memoria Vetusta" record: the third installment of what I understand to be an intended trilogy that has been scattered over most the band's long career.

Some of you may know Blut Aus Nord for their more experimental work, but as a quick glance at the cover will probably tell you, this is not experimental or avant-garde. It's a melodic black metal album heavy on Scandinavian atmosphere, and damn is it ever good.

The guitar work is really the hero here, as the melodious, atmospheric riffs fill the center of the record and dominate the overall sound. The drumming provides a nice sense of drive, but it's a little on the quiet side and is clearly more supplemental than central. The bass, as is common in black metal, isn't really noticeable and may or may not even be present. The vocals, heavily distorted shrieks for the most part, are buried in the mix giving the sense that they are coming from some distant, unseen source. They're the faint echoes of a tortured soul, half heard amidst the howl of the freezing wind through the trees of an isolated pine forest.

The effect of this construction is that all the pieces work to support the central guitar pillar instead of each vying for supremacy. Within the context of the music as a whole, these supporting elements help create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. I'd say that this is one of the best black metal albums in a year that has been quite good for black metal. I highly recommend giving this a listen.

Grade: A


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Gamergate: What it is

I'm more in tune with gaming news than the average person, but by now I'm guessing that at least some of your have heard of Gamergate. I'm also guessing that the source you heard about it from was not reporting on how it began or what it really was, since larger news outlets tend to cover niche stories from ignorant, uninformed standpoints.

To that end, I've decided to post a quick, easy, 10-point guide to what the Gamergate scandal actually is. I'll leave out the names, since they wouldn't mean anything to most readers anyway, and just give you the bullet-points of what happened. Oh, and before I begin, I should point out how stupid I think it is that we use the "-gate" suffix for every scandal and controversy that comes down the pipe.

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1. A female game developer releases an indie game.

2. Said game gets good reviews.

3. A report surfaces that the developer bargained sex in exchange for some key positive reviews. This claim, made by her ex-husband, is later shown to be unverifiable and probably false.

4. This series of events nonetheless reignites the already ongoing debate about questionable ethics in game reviewing. The initial scandal that a developer may have bartered sexual favors for good reviews is referred to in the gaming press as "Gamergate".

5. A group of feminist gamers argues that this developer was only targeted by these claims because she is female.

6. Some members of the gaming community dismiss this claim, pointing out that the bigger issue is about the ethics of game reviewers who often receive undisclosed benefits in exchange for positive reviews. They push for a general consumer revolt against the current gaming review industry.
 
7. Other members of the gaming community respond instead by attacking both the female developer and said feminists via hate mail, death threats, doxing (releasing the victim's personal information online), and assorted other tactics.

8. Other women in gaming step forward and complain that this illustrates the latent sexism of the gaming community.

9. Those women are similarly targeted by the same types of attacks.

10. Press outlets outside of gaming become aware of this and begin reporting on how these women have come under fire. They start calling the notion that men in gaming focus on attacking women in gaming "Gamergate".

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There, now you know what Gamergate is. So what have we learned?

First, we've seen yet again that virtually no grassroots movement is able to stay on point for long. What began as a very legitimate critique of disclosure rules for gaming reviewers quickly got derailed and turned into something it was never supposed to be.

Second, we're reminded that feminist activists are always ready take over every conversation with complaints of sexism. This can be rather obtrusive, given that there are other subjects that exist and are worth discussing. However, it's hard to get too annoyed at them when:

Third, we're repeatedly shown that there are always men willing to be big enough assholes to validate the feminists' complaints. I mean, come on guys. How hard is it to just not be a dick to women?

Fourth, and finally, we see another example of the fact that non-specialized journalists rarely do an even moderately competent job of reporting on special-interest stories. As usual, they came in late with no knowledge of the topic and wrote virtually useless articles misrepresenting or sensationalizing what little information they actually had. This misleads the public about what is happening, and it gives people the illusion of having an informed opinion on a topic, which they can then spread via word-of-mouth, further obscuring the actual truth of a situation.

Well now I've made my effort to address that flow of misinformation. Hopefully it helps.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Aethera Live Demo

I've reviewed a lot of albums by small, up-and-coming metal bands. Sometimes I've been kind, sometimes I've been a dick, but I've always tried to be fair. Well, part of being fair is learning to take it as well as you can dish it out. To that end, I'm now offering everybody whose music I've ever bashed a chance to bash me right back. Today my band Aethera released our first live demo. We have other demos of unfinished songs and assorted experiments up on our Soundcloud, but this is the first full track played and recorded with a full band. So for those of you interested, this is what we sound like.

"Powershift" demo by Aethera

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Card Magic

I may have mentioned once or twice that I love card magic. Maybe I haven't, in which case: I love card magic. There, now I've said it. I may also have mentioned that my favorite magician is Ricky Jay. If not: my favorite magician is Ricky Jay. There, now I've said that too.

There is a beautiful simplicity to a card trick. Any idiot can stand on a stage in a puffy white shirt, waving their arms theatrically while the crew and assistants handle all the actual work of making that helicopter disappear or whatever. But behind the stage, props, and crew those "magicians" are frequently almost comically devoid of skill. To put it another way, the David Copperfields of the world are to magic what Brittney Spears is to music. A card trick, though, doesn't have all that elaborate polish to disguise a lack of substance. It's a pure demonstration of skill, where a master craftsman demonstrates years of careful practice by doing seemingly impossible things with a simple $3 pack of playing cards. It's an alluring idea that no Las Vegas contract or massive props department would be needed for you or me to be able to do the same thing we just saw: all it takes is lots and lots of practice. I'm part way there myself, but that's another story.

Anyway, I thought I'd share a few videos of the kind of tricks I love.

This is by no means a "best of" list, as anyone with a serious interest in magic will see that I've excluded some really vital names. Nor is it a list of the most influential and important pioneers of card magic. Rather, it's a simple selection of routines from some of my favorite card magicians. Enjoy.

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Bill Malone was the first magician who really captured my imagination. His "Sam the Bellhop" routine almost single-handedly fueled my childhood interest in card magic. Not only is he a skilled sleight of hand artist, he is a supremely entertaining performer with a good sense of humor and a highly engaging personality. His "Devilish Miracle" is a nice display of all these qualities in one concise package.


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Alex Elmsley was a magician perhaps better known to other magicians than to the general public, because he was responsible for something that mostly only magicians know about. Setting that cryptic statement aside, he was a charmingly genteel performer who epitomized the subdued elegance of well-executed card magic. This trick was from his performance in the "Lake Tahoe Sessions".

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 Michael Vincent is an extraordinarily refined sleight of hand performer who has arguably the most pure technical skill of any living card magician. That isn't likely to come across unless you know what you're looking for, but then, that is kind of the point. Unfortunately the video of my favorite routine of his, from the show Penn and Teller: Fool Us, is no longer on YouTube. I found it on another site, though, which I've linked right here.

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Ricky Jay is, as I said earlier, my favorite magician. I enjoy his patter, I'm amazed by his skill, and I deeply appreciate the fact that he's a true scholar of his art. Most magicians take very little time to note the history and innovations of their predecessors, but Jay has spent a lifetime studying, preserving, and honoring their legacies. I respect anyone who has real respect for the history of their chosen art-form, and Ricky Jay epitomizes that quality.

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Dai Vernon was almost certainly the 20th century's reigning king of close-up magic. "The Professor" spent his long life perfecting a skill set that made him an idol to magicians around the world. Vernon didn't care much about anything except for perfecting the art of magic, and as a result he became a vitally important figure in shaping and refining many routines that are used today by other performers.