Sucker For Punishment: Shattering the illusion of integrity

This past Saturday I attended a Lamb of God show, quite frankly because they put on a good show and Testament was also playing. But what was particularly interesting at this show was that the venerable Bay Area thrash heroes of Testament were stuck opening this show for Lamb of God and Killswitch Engage. If there was any indication of the current generation gap in metal today, it was this. Some in the crowd, most older, grumbled that it was a sign of disrespect that a band with as strong a legacy (no pun intended) as Testament be placed third on a four-band bill, but the proof was in the pudding when the crowd swelled to several thousand as Killswitch took the stage.
As always happens at these shows with two good bands and one mediocre one, it quickly got depressing as I sat on the side bleachers in the wide hall, nearly nodding off to the band’s forgettable metalcore. In contrast to Testament’s still exciting power and musicality displayed in a set loaded with songs neophytes could remember the first time they heard them – imagine that! – here was a band resorting to lame hardcore riffs, one-note breakdowns, dull screamed vocals, flat clean singing, pussy jokes, and acting like clowns. Yeah, old news, this has been going on for more than a decade now, but this was one of those moments of clarity where I thought to myself, just look at the adulation for such shit. By the time they got around to playing an actual catchy song – “My Last Serenade” – the singer didn’t bother singing the hook, instead imploring the crowd to do it. As a hardcore stunt, I get it, it’s part of that communal aspect, but from a metal perspective it’s just damn lazy. Sing the thing, with power, don’t make everyone else do it for you. What a waste.

But the kids ate it up, and as I looked around me, I noticed I was surrounded by a few dozen more bored metal fans like me, probably also wondering to themselves what this once glorious genre has come to. We were grossly outnumbered. The frontman screamed, and the kids sung so the guy wouldn’t have to. Metal in 2013, ladies and germs.

Anyway, the one new release that’s a must-buy is by a band that, 45 years after forming, still mops the floor with bands one-third their age.

Rush, Clockwork Angels Tour (Anthem/Roadrunner): On the heels of 2012’s Clockwork Angels, Rush’s best album since 1984’s Grace Under Pressure, the Canadian legends took the show on the road, featuring a set that leaned heavily not only on the new album but placed a lot of focus on their underrated 1982-1991 period. As is always the case, that tour produced an inevitable three-CD live album and DVD, and this one’s their best in years. The Clockwork Angels material translates well live – accentuated beautifully by the band’s touring string section – and the fan favorites are fun as well, but the real treat is hearing such ‘80s songs as “Grand Designs”, “The Body Electric”, and “Middletown Dreams”. “Red Sector A” is the best of the lot, given even more emotional weight by a sweeping string arrangement. Rush always treats their fans well, and they’ve put together another very nice package. Seeing how there won’t be any new Rush music in the near future – they’re taking a well-deserved break – fans will have to savor this excellent live document for a while.

Also out this week:

’77, Maximum Rock ‘n Roll (Listenable): Firmly rooted in the sound and aesthetic of AC/DC circa (obviously) 1977, the Spanish band do a serviceable job on their second album. The songs are catchy and exuberant in a whimsical way, but what’s sorely missing is the grit, the bite, the charisma that AC/DC brought, and which countless imitators have never been able to get right.

Blackrat, Whiskey and Blasphemy (Xnihilo): Sodom’s influence looms large on this debut album by the Calgary trio, which in this case is a very, very good thing. Violent, relentless, and completely filthy, this vividly evokes the early, primitive days of Teutonic thrash, and anyone with a soft spot for that era will nod approvingly when they hear this. On a side note, this release caps off a sensational year for Calgary underground metal, which included sterling releases by Gatekrashör, The Weir, Wake, and Chron Goblin.  Stream and Purchase it via Bandcamp. 

Chastain, Surrender To No One (Leviathan): Well isn’t this a pleasure. More than 20 years after her last album with the Cincinnati heavy metal old-timers, Leather Leone is back delivering her raspy snarl. Musically, Chastain’s ninth album is nothing special – serviceable heavy metal circa 1984 – but it’s spirited enough, and it’s great to see one of metal’s great frontwomen back at the helm.

Coven 13, Destiny Of The Gods (Shadow Kingdom): It’s cool to see the Seattle doom band back with their first new music since 1987, but as spirited as it is, as much fun as they seem to be having, this comeback album is surprisingly scattershot, torn between doom, NWOBHM, punk, and gothic. A lot is thrown at the wall, but nowhere near enough of it sticks. That said, give these guys points for a passable cover of Siouxsie & the Banshees’ “Spellbound”.

Five Finger Death Punch, The Wrong Side of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell: Volume 2 (Prospect Park): The way the reigning Nickelback of metal panders to the lowest common denominator is damn near brilliant. Mohawks, brass knuckles, and carefully contrived hostility. An even balance of douchebaggery and sensitive tough guy shtick. Dumbed-down groove metal riffs and sly hooks. Calculated use of the word “fuck”. Ultra-polished production by Kevin Churko. It’s made for the masses, and the masses took a big enough bite to warrant two new albums in 2013. But while the bros and their chicks out there will go for this hook, line, and sinker, the rest of we disheveled lot will be doubled over in laughter at the yarling power ballad cover of “House of the Rising Sun”.

Funeral Circle, Funeral Circle (Shadow Kingdom): Stubbornly stuck in the 1980s, Vancouver’s Funeral Circle worships at the altar of Candlemass, and their latest album does a good job of it, combining mournful, funereal singing with Sabbath-derived riffs. They still need to grow into the music, forge their own identity, but this is nevertheless a good start.

Ghost B.C., If You Have Ghost (Loma Vista): Papa Emeritus and his nameless ghouls – along with some guy named Grohl – have returned with a terrific little stopgap EP highlighted by four very smartly chosen cover songs. You’ve probably heard their haunting rendition of ABBA’s peculiar, cabaret-tinged “I’m a Marionette”, but the real keepers here are the slithering cover of Army of Lovers’ dance tune “Crucified”, Depeche Mode’s “Waiting For the Night”, and best of all, a beautiful reading of Roky Erickson’s “If You Have Ghosts”.

Hanging Garden, I Was A Soldier (Lifeforce): The Finnish band has quickly followed up their 2013 album At Every Door with a three-song EP that continues in a similar melancholy death/doom vein. Like a more robust Swallow the Sun, it’s a confident mix of power, gloom, and melody.

Harsh Toke, Light Up And Live (Tee Pee): Gosh, I wonder what these guys sound like. Yep, hazy blues grooves, wah-wah-enhanced solos, and soaring, epic space rock. And does it ever sound splendid. With bands like these guys, Earthless, and Astra, hopefully San Diego will be known more as a producer of first-rate psychedelic rock instead of the home of a lame Christian metalcore singer who tried to have his ex-wife killed.

Insomnium, Ephemeral (Century Media): The Fimmish melodic death metal band has a new album coming out in early 2014, and this lead-off single is as good a song as they’ve ever recorded, a rare melodeath tune that actually remembers to be hooky. The three acoustic b-sides are wastes of time. Just buy the “Ephemeral” track off iTunes.

Iron Mask, Fifth Son Of Winterdoom (AFM): Featuring Mark Boals, who’s most famous for singing on Yngwie Malmsteen’s 1986 album Trilogy, this Belgian band brings nothing new to power metal, but does it better than average, with lively, uplifting melodies accentuating the usual instrumentally lavish arrangements and fantasy themes.

Lord Fist, Wordless Wisdom of Lord Fist (Ektro): It’s easy to draw parallels between this new Finnish band and early In Solitude. They possess a flair for classic, proper heavy metal, and there are hints of bigger things to come, but the singing isn’t assertive enough yet to carry the music. Still, a good foundation is there.

Possession, His Best Deceit (Iron Bonehead): Iron Bonehead has been coming through with some amazing finds this year, and this is yet another. Although it’s only their first demo recording, this Belgian band sounds in full stride on this cassette release, blistering, dank death metal that often veers into black metal atmospherics. Appended by a twisted cover of Sepultura’s “Necromancer”, this is one demo that you have to check out immediately.

Psalm Zero, Force My Hand (Last Things): This new project by Castevet’s Andrew Hock and former Dirty Projectors member Charlie Looker is peculiar but intriguing, art pop commingling with noise, featuring churning guitar work by Hock and some very unsettling vocal arrangements by Looker. Hearing these two tracks you get the feeling that it’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as these guys are concerned, and their forthcoming album on Profound Lore should be interesting to hear.

Saxon, Unplugged and Strung Up (UDR): I usually cannot stand albums of re-recorded hits, and indeed, the acoustic/orchestral renditions of Saxon oldies do nothing for me. However, and that’s a big however, the bonus studio performance disc is flat-out fantastic. The boys are sounding as great these days as they ever have, and hearing them plow through “Dallas 1 P.M.”, “Wheels of Steel”, and “Motorcycle Man” with as much fire and passion as 30+ years ago is a real pleasure.

Sons Of Huns, Banishment Ritual (Easy Rider): Rampaging garage rock with plenty of stoner/psychedelic inclinations. It’s far from perfect, but what it lacks in good lead vocals is made up for in energy.

Tad Morose, Revenant (Deepsotz): This is the album power metal should be excited for this week, as the Swedish band has returned with their first album in ten years. Very much in the same vein as Symphony X, it’s a robust, guitar-oriented combination of power and prog, muscular, thrashy rhythm riffs lending weight to the strong, flamboyant melodies. New singer Ronny Hemlin holds his own very well in his own Ripper Owens way, and better yet, the songs have life to them.

Tombstoned, Tombstoned (Svart): Either it’s a lame weed reference by another weedy band, or they’re fans of The Undertaker. I’m thinking the former. Either way it’s some solid heavy rock, huge on the doom influence of course, but capable of gliding, ride cymbal-leaning desert rock, and best of all, the rustic, ragged sounds of Crazy Horse. There’s massive potential in this band, and if Tombstoned improve on this debut album, look out. You’ve been forewarned.

Young Hunter, Embers at the Foot of Dark Mountain (self-released): The Tucson, Arizona band’s debut album Stone Tools was one of 2012’s most interesting American metal releases, drawing inspiration from not only Neurosis and Earth but their Sonoran desert environment as well. It’s sprawling and desolate, but always capable of genuine soul, and that’s again the impression you get on this fine new three-song EP. Only this time, the band sounds sharper, the songwriting a lot more confident – “Trail of Tears” is a stunner – and the dynamic between singers Benjamin Blake and Julia DeConcini is even more developed. More people need to hear this band. Stream and download it (name your price) via Bandcamp. 

Not metal, but worth hearing:

T.G. Olson, The Bad Lands to Cross (self-released): If you don’t know already, few heavy bands tap into Americana as skillfully as Across Tundras, their blend of rustic sounds, Crazy Horse-inspired jams, and Neurosis-style doom unique and evocative of the vast American landscape. Band leader Tanner Olson has just released his new solo record, which does away with the metal element and heads in a more folk direction, and its minimal, lo-fi recording style fits the compositions perfectly. Like SubRosa, the darker side of American folk music fits Olson’s songwriting to a tee, and he embraces that aesthetic fully on this murky, haunting album. It’s available as a “name your price” download via Bandcamp, and I highly suggest you get it.

Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy