Sucker For Punishment: A Septuagenarian Stew

Metal scenesters have always had a problem with artists that “dabble” in metal. In a way, that’s easy to understand: heavy metal is an all-or-nothing style of music, one whose audience embraces as not only as a diversion but a lifestyle, and they fully expect the same kind of dedication to the music, art, and aesthetic from the musicians. Authenticity and sincerity are key to fans, and when an artist from outside the genre experiments with heavier sounds, the persistently paranoid rabble out there can detect cynicism and condescension from miles away. Never mind the fact that just as much cynicism and contrivance exists within the metal genre as any other form of popular music, but try telling a metal purist that and they’ll respond like a child yelling with its hands over its ears. “LA LA LA, I CAN’T HEAR YOU…
This week is particularly interesting, because contrary to what those who defend metal’s “authenticity” are willing to believe, the two most important new albums are by artists trying their hand at heavy metal-derived music for the first time, in very different ways. Staten Island’s The Budos Band, a mainstay on the outstanding Daptone Records label, has for years excelled at creating an eclectic sound that incorporates everything from deep funk to Afrobeat, but the crew raised more than a few eyebrows when it announced its first new album in four years would be heavily inspired by Black Sabbath and Pentagram, right down to the decidedly metal cover art of a sorcerer (detail pictured above).

Recorded with more focus on guitar and psychedelic effects, but never detracting from the core horn-driven sound of the band, Burnt Offering (Daptone) is sensational in the way it creates a wholly unique environment from the very start. An obvious comparison would be Swedish collective Goat, but unlike that band’s heavily stylized – and stylish – psychedelia, The Budos Band heads into much darker territory thanks to its wicked funk grooves, ominous African rhythms and melodies, free jazz solos, and at the root of it all, that imposing doom sound. It sounds exotic and vintage, but there’s always a modern sensibility afoot, the band taking its already progressive sound into daring, murky territory, embracing a style of music most in the jazz/funk scene either look down upon or completely ignore.

Even more exciting than The Budos Band going all Pentagram on its audience was the announcement that mercurial, enigmatic septuagenarian innovator Scott Walker had teamed up with drone duo Sunn O))) on his latest album. Funnily enough, the idea of a Scott Walker/Sunn O))) collaboration hardly felt like a shock; in fact, it seemed like the most natural of fits. After all, Walker’s last three albums – 1995’s Tilt, 2006’s The Drift, 2012’s Bish Bosch – rank among the most unorthodox pieces of music recorded in the last 20 years, in which the man shedded his pop music past completely, in the process becoming an avant-garde auteur of the highest level. The duo of Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, meanwhile, have stripped the sound of doom metal to its skeletal core over the years, to the point where they’ve completely reinvented heavy music in their own minimalist way. So by that rationale, this marriage between these manic deconstructionists feels like a weirdly perfect match, and that’s indeed the case on the daring, revelatory Soused (4AD).

Walker is no stranger to truly heavy music – The Drift remains one of the most intense, harrowing albums this writer has ever heard – but Soused sees him exploring the sounds of distorted heavy metal guitar for the first time, and what makes the entire exercise work is that this is first and foremost a Scott Walker album, with Sunn O))) playing a strictly complimentary, supporting role. That’s crucial, because with the sheer volume of O’Malley’s and Anderson’s past work, it could have completely overwhelmed Walker’s compositions. However, the guitarists smartly hold back. Aside from the gleefully garish opening strains of “Brando”, which cheekily reference Guns ‘N’ Roses of all things, Sunn O))) allow themselves to be conducted by Walker and manipulated in such a way that those monstrous riffs, as on the foreboding “Herod” accentuate the song rather than dominate.

At the end of the day, Soused is less about the presence of Sunn O))) – crucial as it is – and more about the compositions by Walker, which just like his masterful late-career trilogy, throw pop music on its ear, subverting it, perverting it, resulting in a strange, enthralling, abstract, absurd piece of modern art laced with gripping poetry and wry humor, delivered by that distinct voice of Walker’s, which is not far removed from his singing style from 50 years ago, but couldn’ be farther from “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”. If there’s one thing that’s missed, it’s the sheer eclectic quality of Bish Bosch, as its wild, varied instrumentation helped make it so unique, but even though Walker and Sunn O))) take a simpler route on Soused, Walker’s longtime collaborator Peter walsh manipulates it all just enough to keep things from becoming too muddled in those metallic guitars. It’s a dream result from a dream collaboration, a very rare case where a meeting of highly creative minds yields extraordinary, extraordinary results. Sorry, 20-something “extreme” metal bands, this 71 year-old is more metal than you.

Also out this week:

Atomikylä, Erkale (Future Lunch): It might not be on par with Oranssi pazuzu’s masterful Velonielu last year, but this cryptic Finnish band follows that same example and does a great job in its own right. Heavily influenced by both black metal, krautrock, and psychedelic/space rock, the band creates extended jams that combine darkness and color to often brilliant effect, relying heavily on steady, hypnotic rhythms, repetition, and improvisation on top of it all. This is a band to watch, one the Roadburn crowd will immediately gravitate towards, and rightfully so.

Bulletbelt, Rise of the Banshee (self-released): If you’ve got a hankering for simple, no-frills blackened thrash metal, look no further than this New Zealand band. Cut from the same cloth as Skeletonwitch, this second album is all about brisk, tremolo-picked riffs juxtaposed with double-time tempos and blasting, led by the ferocious shriek of vocalist Jolene Tempest. Songs like “Numbered Tomb” and “Death Tinted Red” prove to be immensely satisfying, highlighting a very fun album that deserves a wider audience than what the band has on the other side of the world. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.

Alice Cooper, Raise The Dead: Live From Wacken (UDR): Is this DVD release of Alice Cooper’s 2013 Wacken performance necessary? Of course it isn’t. Is it fun? Hell, yes. It’s a great little memento from his fantastic Raise the Dead tour, which featured Orianthi, his best lead guitarist in decades. A great little purchase for fans.

Amaranthe, Massive Addictive (Spinefarm): This Swedish band’s approach to power metal is so loopy and over the top, I can’t see why you can’t refer to this music as “extreme” as well. Pop-oriented hooks are pushed way, way up to the forefront, Elize Ryd’s vocal melodies steering listeners’ attention away from some painfully rote, Lacuna Coil-derived arrangements. For some reason this band feels it’s necessary to employ two more male vocalists – one who doesn’t sing very well, one who just growls uselessly – but as long as Ryd dominates the music, which she does, this album works just well enough to qualify as a mildly guilty pleasure. In this record’s case, the more upbeat the music (see “Digital World”), the better off it is.

The Body / Sandworm, Split (Thrill Jockey): Chip King and Lee Buford, AKA The Body, are back with yet another new release, this time a split release with fellow Rhode Islanders Sandworm. The Body’s lone track, the 16-minute “The Manic Fire”, is very much as the title implies, a haphazard mess of abstract noise with a little doom thrown in. A decent mood piece, but far from their best work, paling in comparison to the album made with The Haxan Cloak earlier this year. As for Sandworm’s 11 tracks – 11?! – it’s a scattershot collection of half-formed ideas comprised of raw guitar and simple drumming. Kind of like a black metal Black Keys, I suppose. It’s an intriguing idea, and surprisingly the best thing about this release.

Couch Slut, My Life as a Woman (Handshake): It’d be easy to roll your eyes at every hotly-tipped underground band that comes out of Brooklyn if the quality of the music wasn’t so consistently damn good practically every time. Couch Slut is particularly interesting, too, in how the band channels the atonal, grating noise rock sounds of the 1990s (think Jesus Lizard and Harvey Milk), adds a ferocious female perspective reminiscent of the riot grrrl movement, and tosses in subtle touches of doom and black metal to modernize the whole sound. The intensity is palpable, the songs are tremendously engaging, and Megan Osztrosits is a riveting frontwoman. Here’s hoping this superb, provocative debut is just the beginning. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.

Deep Purple, Live In Verona (Eagle Rock): Recorded in 2011, the mighty Deep Purple play a lively set of classics in Verona, Italy’s gorgeous Roman amphitheater, bolstered by a full orchestra. Granted, this is neither as adventurous as the band’s past orchestral collaborations, nor is the music as intense and jam-filled as it was 30 or 40 years ago, but the old guys still sound great, the tunes are spirited, the orchestra never becomes a distraction, and it’s beautifully shot, to boot. This is well worth checking out, a real pleasure.

Nuclear Perversion, Desolation Rituals (Iron Bonehead): Crusty black metal? Cartoonish vocal histrionics? Hilarious intro track that’s longer than any of the songs? A track called “Fistfuckchrist”? A cassette-only release because that somehow makes it seem all the more “underground”? Check, check, check, check, and check.

Oozing Wound, Earth Suck (Thrill Jockey): A year after releasing the raucous Retrash, the Chicago trio is back with a similarly energetic and fun follow-up that feels like a manic combination of thrash, Melvins, and most of all, High on Fire. Because it’s delivered with sly humor some might mistakenly question the band’s authenticity, but this is some very strong, robust, thrashy sludge that’ll slap a big, dumb grin across your face.

Slipknot, .5: The Gray Chapter (Roadrunner): When your music and image completely revolves around a gimmick revolving around clown masks, banging on garbage cans, and tapping into white adolescent suburban rage, it can obviously be a challenge to sound convincing doing it in your 40s. Six years ago Slipknot sounded well past its prime on the mediocre, fittingly titled All Hope is Gone, a sloppy album crammed with faux-anger and power ballads, and despite being plenty capable of putting on an intense live show, the idea of Slipknot being relevant in the metal world felt like ancient history. But it’s funny what a little adversity can do to a stagnant band. Bassist Paul Gray died tragically young, while the band endured a very ugly split with overrated drummer Joey Jordison, and the surviving members managed to channel all that angst into their new music, and the end result is Slipknot’s most focused, dynamic, and vitriolic piece of work since Iowa. “Lech”, “Sarcastrophe”, and “The Negative One” bridge nu-metal and extremity as well as fans can hope for, but the real revelation is “The Devil in I”, a brilliant single that brings new ideas to the band’s arsenal, allowing singer Corey Taylor to showcase his impressive – and underrated – vocal range. As is always the case with a popular American band, things run a little long, but overall this is a welcome return to form by one of the biggest mainstream bands in the genre.

Woccon, Solace in Decay (Deathbound): This debut full-length by the Athens, Georgia band is a revelation, cut from the same cloth as Katatonia, Swallow the Sun, and Daylight Dies, but already confident enough to create a personality all its own. It’s rare to come across an album by a new band that sounds this assured, and Woccon makes one hell of a statement on this one. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.

Not metal, but totally worth hearing:

Jessie Ware, Tough Love (Island): The London R&B singer made an unforgettable first impression on 2012’s nocturnal, brooding debut Devotion, and now that she’s on the cusp of stardom, Jessie Ware pulls out all the stops on the follow-up with admirable success. A much wider range of styles is covered this time around, ranging from dreamy adult contemporary (You & I (Forever)”), to trendy modern dance (Dev Hynes’ “Want Your Feeling”), to bland vanilla pop (Ed Sheeran’s “Say You love Me”), and the sole reason this all works is thanks to Ware, who gracefully adapts to each sound, maintaining an even emotional keel throughout, sounding seductive and soulful, especially on the slow-burning highlight “Kind Of…Sometimes…Maybe”. The much more focused Devotion is the superior album, but Ware still weaves an intoxicating spell on Tough Love.

Follow me on Twitter at @basementgalaxy