Sucker For Punishment: What is and What Should Always Be

If you’re a metal fan, you have to know your history, know where the music you like comes from. It’s funny, though, when you find yourself digging through the lesser-knowns of “proto-metal” if you will, the Sir Lord Baltimores, the Buffaloes, the Pentagrams, you can lose sight of the forest for all those darn trees. But take a step back, and a pair of colossal redwoods looms over the rest. First and foremost, of course, is Black Sabbath, the first complete realization of the heavy metal aesthetic, but right beside it is Led Zeppelin, who 13 months before Sabbath’s debut came out, released an album that redefined how forceful, how, yes, extreme rock music could be. Kicking off a series of six albums that are unmitigated classics, Led Zeppelin’s influence on heavy metal is incalculable, and the new series of reissues helmed by guitarist Jimmy Page is not only a chance for longtime fans to gain a broader perspective of this great body of music, but more crucially, for new, younger listeners to learn and discover.
Presented in repackaged, expanded, and beautifully remastered new editions, the first in the series focuses on Zeppelin’s first three albums, each one distinctly different from one another. Much has been made, especially lately, about how the band, especially early on, intentionally didn’t give songwriting credit to the blues artists they lifted their songs from, but theft aside, the chemistry the foursome of Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and the almighty John Bonham displays on the debut album is extraordinary. Recorded in just 36 hours, the band is scorching, tightened and toughened by touring, but still capable of great subtlety, which offsets the force beautifully, the raucous “Communication Breakdown”, the psychedelic “Dazed and Confused” and the blues jam “How Many More Times” countered with the more restrained “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” and “Your Time is Gonna Come”. The bonus material is phenomenal, a full live set recorded in Paris in 1969, a perfect showcase of the foursome’s chemistry.

Released nine months later, Led Zeppelin II is more powerful and even more dynamic, kicked off by the classic riff of “Whole Lotta Love”, and sustained by the heavy blues grooves of “Heartbreaker” and “Bring it on Home”, Bonham’s titanic “Moby Dick”, and a pair of gorgeous acoustic numbers in “Thank You” and “Ramble On”. The bonus material takes the listener deeper into the making of the album, its rough mixes not only showing just how great a producer Page was, but how exciting these seminal tracks still sound in skeletal form. Of particular interest is the instrumental “La La”, a whimsical excursion into pop territory that, while obviously an odd fit – it was left off for a reason – is ebullient and sunny, a blast to hear.

1970’s Led Zeppelin III might be the least iconic of Zeppelin’s first six albums, but it’s one of the band’s most rewarding works. Though it boasts the great “Immigrant Song” (the first Viking metal song) the swaggering rocker “Celebration Day”, the raucous “Out on the Tiles”, and the sultry blues track “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, the primary focus is on folk music. The acoustic arrangements of “Friends”, “Gallows Pole”, “Tangerine”, “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp”, and “That’s the Way” are rendered in absolutely stunning fashion. And the woefully underrated “Hats off to (Roy) Harper” is the filthiest blues track the band would ever record. The album is all about “less is more”, and like on Led Zeppelin II, the bonus rough mixes emphasize that, highlighted by the pre-“Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” jam of “Jennings Farm Blues” and the nasty country blues of “Key to the Highway/Trouble in Mind”.

All three albums are wildly different, and it’s incredible to think the band evolved that quickly in barely a year and a half. Consequently, the remastering for each album is slightly different, but one consistency is the bass, which has been beefed up but not overbearingly so. This is one remastering project that hasn’t gotten itself caught up in the “loudness wars”; while it indeed sounds better among all your other iTunes tracks, it’s still very tasteful and restrained. The CD packaging, meanwhile, is fantastic, especially Led Zeppelin III, which faithfully reproduces the psychedelic spinning wheel inside the front cover. If you haven’t gathered already, these reissues are slam dunk must-owns, be it on CD or vinyl, whatever format you prefer. And to think Led Zeppelin IV, Houses of the Holy, and Physical Graffiti are on the horizon. It’s only going to get better.

For those who are muttering that Led Zeppelin isn’t metal, fine, there’s a light load of new metal releases this week:

Darkest Era, Severance (Cruz del Sur): Maybe it’s partially because the fact that Darkest Era is from Ireland lingers in your mind, but you can’t help but hear two important signposts in the band’s music: the metallic Celtic gallop of Thin Lizzy, and the bracing power of Primordial. However, to dwell on just those two very obvious aspects of the music would be unfair to the band, who to their credit take some great traditional influences and make something they can call their own. Veering from black metal, to pagan metal, to power metal, to NWOBHM, it’s all executed with commanding authority. And if there’s one thing that gives this band an edge over the great Primordial, it’s that singer Krum has a better handle on vocal melodies, bringing in a little more soul to counter all the bombast, a great example being the thundering epic “Blood, Sand and Stone”. “The Scavenger”, “Trapped in the Hourglass”, and “Sorrow’s Boundless Realm” highlight a record that is every bit as deserving of the acclaim that Atlantean Kodex received last year. Fans of proper, melodic heavy metal owe it to themselves to hear this one.

Die Apokalyptischen Reiter, Tief.Tiefer (Nuclear Blast): I don’t understand this German band at all. And not just because they sing in German. The music always strikes me as Rammstein Lite with a little Primus/Mudvayne wankery tossed in, and when I saw them on 70,000 Tons of Metal last year, I was baffled by their little keyboard fellow dressed up in bondage gear for no apparent reason. This latest release is a double album featuring one CD of industrial metal and a another containing horrible attempts at acoustic renditions of industrial metal. It’s all an embarrassing exercise, leaving me wondering why these guys have a deal with the biggest metal label in the world.

Diseased Reason, Recombinant (Handshake): It’s gotten to the point now where I’m perfectly fine putting my complete trust in Handshake when it comes to grindcore worth hearing. The Canadian label has a tremendous ear for grindcore with character (see recent albums by Gridlink and Wake), and this wicked new album by the Tucson band (produced by Billy Anderson, no less) is a terrific, primal blend of grind, death, and doom, equal parts Napalm Death and Asphyx.

The Great Sabatini, Dog Years (Solar Flare): The Montreal band’s AmRep-style noise  is energetic enough, often played atop a propulsive d-beat, but you can’t help but feel that hearing it played live packs a hell of a much bigger punch than this record does. They still have a long way to go if they want to unseed KEN Mode as the best noise band in Canada.

Opium Warlords, Taste My Sword Of Understanding (Svart): The band best known for putting out an album bearing the wonderfully ridiculous We Meditate Under the Pussy in the Sky is back with a somewhat less ridiculously named follow-up, but fear not, the music therein is every bit as tedious and pointless a blend of doom, prog, and dromne as the Finns have always done.

Buzz Osborne, This Machine Kills Artists (Ipecac): The solo debut by the longtime Melvins frontman might only consist of him and his acoustic guitar, but structurally these are very much Melvins-esque despite the skeletal arrangements. Granted, the way he hammers on his acoustic is a reminder of how sludge’s lack of subtlety doesn’t translate well to the “unplugged” format, but the album is loaded with his trademark humor and wit, and the songs are just involving enough to warrant a mild recommendation.

Sacrocurse, Unholier Master (Hells Headbangers): Decently played, brutally recorded death metal from Mexico that pushes all the predictable buttons (reverb-drenched vocal grunts, buzzing guitars, blastbeats aplenty) but only sporadically creates anything memorable. The impressive title track comes closest.

Soundgarden, Superunknown: Super Deluxe (UME): If you think I’m going to waste my and your time by writing about one of the most bloated, overrated albums of the 1990s, you’re sadly mistaken. Faster, grunge nostalgia, die, die.

Swarþ, Omines Pestilentiae (Iron Bonehead): I asked the question on Twitter, “How the heck do you pronounce ‘Swarþ’?” Fellow Decibel colleague Jeff Treppel immediately quipped, “delete.” Hearing this patently unspectacular death metal demo, he’s exactly right.

Vader, Tibi Et Igni (Nuclear Blast): Few death metal bands are as satisfying as Vader. Time and again the Polish veterans come through with simple, pulverizing death metal with a keen ear for hooks and dynamics. You know exactly what every new album is going to sound like, but instead of feeling like boring repetition, you’re hearing masters of the genre at work. You remember how each song goes immediately after hearing it. Imagine that. Songwriting! It’s metal as it should be, catchy, fun, and completely invigorating.

Not metal, but worth hearing:

Fucked Up, Glass Boys (Matador): Seeing that Fucked Up is responsible for three of my favorite albums of the past decade, expectations were sky-high for the Toronto band’s fourth proper full-length. After three sprawling, highly ambitious albums that redefined what post-millenial punk rock could do, where do you go from here? With Glass Boys, the answer is in the form of a holding pattern. Granted, it’s still an awfully impressive holding pattern, as the band continues to incorporate elements of pop, shoegaze, and arena rock into its rampaging punk rock, but nothing leaps out at the listener the way “Queen of Hearts” and “No Epiphany” did in the past. It’s more of a slow burn, requiring time for the songs to settle in, but that’s where the concise 43-minute running time works to its advantage, as these ten tracks to eventually win you over. As always, Damian Abraham roars away like a madman, but the lyrics by he and guitarist Mike Haliechuk are more introspective, often eloquently so. Thankfully, the fact that it’s a slightly lesser album than the others doesn’t diminish an otherwise very likeable record by one of the best bands working today.

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