Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sometimes Wednesday is Blues Day

Today is the anniversary of Stevie Ray Vaughan's death. Normally when I talk about the blues, I like to discuss individuals from early in blues history. This time, I'm covering somebody much better known to the general public. Since I was busy working on a project yesterday I didn't do my blues post, so today I'm going to take this opportunity to talk just a little bit about SRV.

To a generation of young fans, Stevie Ray Vaughan is the face and voice of the blues. His swagger, his style, his energy, his sizzling Texas twang . . . Vaughan was an original who built on a brilliant foundation of Texas blues to leave a mark on the music world that has thrived well past the end of his tragically short life. All one needs to do to see the size of his impact on modern blues players is go to any blues guitar competition. Do that, and you'll see at least a dozen guys wearing black, broad-brimmed hats and playing battered sunburst Stratocasters.

Stevie Ray Vaughan was my personal guitar hero when I was younger. The first album I ever bought myself was a cassette of his debut Texas Flood. His exciting, energetic, southwest-flavored take on classic blues sparked my own interest in learning the instrument. Knowing that he had spent 10 hours a day practicing as a teenager inspired legions of other people to pursue music with that same kind of fervent intensity. Stories pervade of him playing until the callouses tore off his fingertips only to have him super-glue them back on and keep playing. His zeal was such that nobody even seems to question the accuracy of those tales. Most members of the current generation of blues musicians like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Johnny Lang idolized him because of that passion.

His music speaks for itself, though, so I'm going to let it do that now.

Nunslaughter - Angelic Dread

Titans of the death metal underground, Nunslaughter have been churning out primitive, ugly death metal since the late '80s. In June, the band released their newest full-length Angelic Dread.

Nunslaughter have followed kind of a weird release pattern throughout their career. When you hear that a death metal band formed in 1987 but only has four full-length albums at present, the first impulse is to assume they broke up or went on hiatus for years. Nunslaughter have been around the whole time, though. It's just that, instead of releasing regular albums, the band has spewed forth a deluge of demos, splits, EPs, and live recordings for decades. By the time they released their first full album in 2000 they had already produced several albums worth of material. Since then, they've actually stepped up their rate of production significantly. In 2014 alone they have already released three splits, three live albums, and three EPs in addition to this full studio album.

Their music all tends to fall into the same niche, and this is no exception. Nunslaughter play fast, aggressive, primitive, hateful death metal that's as fixated on anti-Christianity as a band could get. As usual, this is dark and mean and intense. Relatively simple riffs are flailed out so maniacally that it seems they couldn't get any more complex without causing the guitarist to collapse. The drums bash away, adding to the din without ever getting very complex or sophisticated either. There are tempo changes, and at times the music settles into more of a slow, rolling Incantation-esque gait, but that never lasts for very long. It's a double album, with a total of thirty-one songs. In all that material, only two tracks clock in at more than three minutes long, and both of them are well under four minutes. So unlike me, Nunslaughter get straight to the point.

Finally, the real energy behind the band is the rabid vocal work of sole-constant-member Donald "Don of the Dead" Crotsley. His manic delivery and palpable hated of seemingly everything (but religion in particular) are the driving force that elevates Nunslaughter above the faceless ranks of other underground old-school death metal bands.

Given their one-track approach, Nunslaughter are unlikely to ever evolve or explore new territory, so acquiring new fans isn't even a consideration. This also means that there is limited value in listening to new material from them if you already have an earlier album or two, since there's nothing really different to hear. If the band were worse at what they do, it would be easy to say that they're stuck in a rut. Instead, I think it would be more fair to say that they are purists. There's no muss, no fuss, no experimentation or complexity: just straight forward, up-the-gut, pure as the depths of hell death metal in all its gruesome, vicious glory. Since this is almost like buying two albums at once, if you're not familiar with the band and you want a big chunk of material, this is as good a place as any to start.

Grade: A-

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Stworz - Cóż po żyznych ziemiach​.​.​.

Stworz are a pagan metal band from Poland. This summer the band released their third full-length effort, Cóż po żyznych ziemiach​.​.​., through the excellent black/pagan label Werewolf Promotion.

Much of the Polish metal scene lives in the colossal twin shadows of Vader and Behemoth. Death metal especially is so heavily colored by these bands that it's actually surprising to hear a Polish death metal band that doesn't sound like a clone of one or the other. Typically, though, pagan metal moves in a somewhat different sphere and conforms to a different set of standards. It's interesting, then, to hear an example of these worlds colliding.

Stworz, in simplest terms, sound like Vader playing pagan metal. It's pretty fucking awesome.

The songs generally move at a fairly relaxed pace, as is typical for pagan metal. Most tracks settle in at a comfortable 6 minutes or so, giving enough time for atmosphere to develop without dragging on and losing focus. There's a slightly folky flavor, but standard metal instrumentation is dominant throughout the music with only the barest touches added to augment the sound. For the most part, this is pagan metal that's on the more directly metal end of the spectrum. There are quiet moments and goofy, playful passages, but most of what you'll hear is less melodramatic and more straight-forward than is typical for the sub-genre. The drumming in particular propels the music in a surprisingly direct way. The guitar tone and occasional presence of actual bass have more in common with death metal than black metal, marking Stworz as part on an increasingly large movement within the folk and pagan metal world that features melodic death metal as the core of their sound.

Both harsh and clean vocals appear throughout the record. The clean are typically male and female sung in harmony, and they work just fine in a Celtic kind of way that reminds me of some of the less flowery Cruachan songs. The harsh vocals are when things get really cool, though, because his death growls sound remarkably similar to Peter's from Vader. It's enjoyable to hear vocals like those in this context, and in my opinion they do a lot to elevate the overall sound, though I wish they played a bigger role.

I've spent a lot of time hunting, but until recently there hasn't been much in the Viking/folk/pagan vein that has really impressed me this year. This is a good one, though.

Grade: A-

Friday, August 22, 2014

Opeth - Pale Communion

In a few days, Opeth will release their 11th full-length studio album Pale Communion. Prior to release, the album was made available as a live stream, and given that Opeth are one of my absolute favorite bands I was quick to run over and listen for myself.

My opinion, if I'm honest, is a little more mixed than I'd like it to be. On the one hand, they still sound like Opeth. Nobody who knows the band is going to hear this and think "What!? THAT'S Opeth!?!" Additionally, since their last album Heritage  was purely built on the softer side of the band's sound and Mikael Åkerfeldt has been very upfront about moving away from harsh vocals, it's not like this was some horrible surprise that the band suddenly sprung on us. It's just the second album in Opeth's transition from a progressive metal band to a progressive rock band, and that is not in and of itself an entirely bad thing. After all, any group that has been touted for its creativity and vision for a couple decades is quite justifiably bound to change things up at some point and try a new direction. And they've made that shift without losing their integrity, maintaining the dark feeling and core musical identity that they've built over the years, though some critics may disagree with me on that.

. . . but . . .

The simple truth, as far as I'm concerned, is that Opeth's dynamic range has always been one of their greatest weapons. Many bands sound great doing heavy death metal stuff. Likewise, many bands sound great doing prog rock. Some bands have mastered the soft/hard dynamic, fusing the best of both worlds into something greater than the sum of its parts. Opeth were not just one of those masters, though, they were the king. There have been many martial arts film stars, but there's only one Bruce Lee. There have been many soft/hard metal bands, but there's only one Opeth. The level of excellence they attained extends beyond just one niche of metal, too. I think there's a legitimate argument to be made that from roughly 1998 to 2008, Opeth were the single best metal band in the world.

Now that time is gone. The band are a collection of prodigiously talented musicians who have crafted a strong piece of dark, jazz-inflected progressive rock. The album is definitely good. But Opeth are no longer the king of the mountain. They have removed their crown and set forth on a spiritual pilgrimage into the desert. Opeth are still a great band and I wish them well on their travels, but I long for the day when they return to retake their rightful place on the throne.

Grade: B+

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Eluveitie - Origins

This month saw the newest release from folk-metal big shots Eluveitie. This is their sixth full-length record, entitled Origins.

Eluveitie are one of the most frustrating bands in metal, if you ask me. No, scratch that. They're one of the most frustrating bands in metal if you ask a lot of people. Back in 2008, just as folk metal was reaching its tipping point, Eluveitie hit the world's ear-holes with their sophomore effort Slania, a record that instantly established them as one of the most exciting bands in the explosively growing sub-genre. Since then Eluveitie, Finntroll, and Korpiklaani have probably (though it can be hard to tell for sure) been the three most popular folk metal bands in the world.

Yet not one of the band's subsequent releases has lived up to that high standard. As one record after another came along, it became clear that their attempts at recapturing that moment had taken the band from redundant to outright stagnant. For years they've enjoyed all the popularity a folk metal band could ever hope for without progressing in any meaningful way, transforming in the process from folk metal legends in the making to merely a decent band with one great album. The worst part, though, is that they seem to have all the talent they could possibly need, but they just don't do anything with it.

So, two full paragraphs after the intro, we finally get to the actual album in question. By now, you may think you have a general idea where this is going, but you're wrong. Unfortunately, you're not wrong in a good way. For all their passionless, unambitious redundancy, the last few Eluveitie albums have all been basically okay. Sure, they're all just "Slania  but worse," but they've all been listenable collections of average material. Even 2012's utterly pointless Helvetios  could still claim to at least be inoffensively mediocre. Origins, on the other hand, is the band's first record that I would personally call actively bad.

The melodeath streak they've always had has widened, littering the music with every bad quality associated with that sub-genre while skirting the good like an albino dodging sunlight. The clean female vocals have taken on an expanded role, delivered in a fashion that makes me wonder if Flyleaf is still popular enough to be worth imitating at this point. Any folk elements exist entirely as window dressing at this juncture: there because the band requires their aesthetics, but no longer rooted in the music in any deep or meaningful way. Basically, it sounds like a shitty alt-rock band's bus crashed into the world's least genuine Eluveitie cover act, and all the broken pieces fused together into an amorphous blob of violins and mascara that belched out an album.

Maybe their last couple of releases really have been this bad too and I just didn't see it because I was blindly holding out hope, but I can tell you for sure I have no interest in going back and checking. There's naught down that road but tears. For years, I've waited for Eluveitie to show that they were just in the midst of a really long dry spell. I'd hoped they would re-emerge into greatness, like the Ben Affleck of folk metal. But now they have truly taken the plunge off the deep end and proven themselves to be, as Full Metal Attorney called them way back in March of 2012, the M. Night Shyamalan of folk metal instead.

Grade: D