Sucker For Punishment: Blinded By Fandom

As music writers learn when they hit their late 30s and head into their 40s, nostalgia is very powerful, to the point of being irresistible. Whenever a revered artist or band returns from a very long absence with a record that’s been hyped to the nines, you’re going to have certain critics whose attachment to the band is so strong that try as they might to provide an objective opinion on the new music, those darned blinders of fandom still get in the way. Personally, as much as I like writing about Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Rush, if you’re familiar with my work you know I’m going to be very forgiving, even if an album is subpar. In the case of Priest’s recent album Redeemer of Souls, it ranks very high on my best-of-2014 list solely because it pleases me on a purely sentimental level. It makes this guy wistful and happy because it hearkens back to an era when Priest’s music had the biggest impact on me, 30 years ago. So while I love Redeemer and will espouse its merits to anyone, for the casual listener who’s not a fan, my opinion might not feel as trustworthy as a review by someone with absolutely zero sentimental attachment to the band and the music.
Forgive me, Decibel readers, but I’m about to blaspheme a little. If there’s one thing I can say about death metal, it’s that I have zero sentimental attachment to it. I thoroughly enjoy it when it’s done well, but when the music was in its nascent stages in the late-1980s, when it built that early core audience, I couldn’t care less about it. It had zero influence on me during my formative years, so as a result I’ve always been very selective when it comes to singling out good contemporary death metal albums today. So when a band like Carcass comes along – whom I have great admiration for and whose albums I own, but whom I can’t call myself a “fan” of – and releases an album in Surgical Steel that shatters my own expectations to the point where I can declare a full year later that it ranks as one of the best metal albums of the last 15 years, that’s something worth noting. A “comeback” album that makes a non-fan a fan is as ringing an endorsement as you will ever find.

A year after Surgical Steel came along and blew everyone away, another highly influential, much-adored death metal band has finally released its fifth album. In At the Gates’ case, it’s been 19 years since the release of the classic Slaughter of the Soul, and although the band has been milking the reunion thing since 2008, what remained to be seen was whether or not they’d be able to sustain that positive momentum with strong new material once again.

The impressive thing about At War With Reality (Century Media) is that it sounds exactly what fans of At the Gates want to hear. The songs are crisp, taut, three to four-minute exercises in the straightforward melodic death metal the band helped pioneer, focusing once again on the contrast between the fluid, ornate melodies of guitarists Anders Björler and Martin Larsson and the intense vocals of the inimitable Tomas Lindberg, juxtaposed against a backdrop of thrash and NWOBHM-derived speed. It feels comfortable and good, and songs like “Death and the Labyrinth” and “At War With Reality” are instantly satisfying, wasting no time in recalling classics “Blinded By Fear” and “Under a Serpent Sun”.

However, this is where the perspective of the non-fan can become invaluable amidst all the critical euphoria. As strong as this album is, as recognizable as the music is, At War With Reality does nothing to add to At the Gates’ legacy, other than give the fans a familiar product. Part of the album’s lack of impact beyond that initial instinctive reaction is due to the fact that At the Gates spawned hundreds of acolytes who played the exact same style of music to the point of severe oversaturation. The horrible truth is that even though At the Gates still sounds better than all of the imitators, how anyone can feel over the moon about this album after 15 years of melodic death metal bands beating that dead horse over and over is beyond me. Consequently this style of music hardly sounds fresh, even in the hands of these old masters, and the cold, hard fact of the matter is that no tracks on At War With Reality even come close to equaling anything off Slaughter of the Soul or Terminal Spirit Disease. There’s a lot of good here – “Order From Chaos” and “The Night Eternal” are welcome changes of pace – but unlike Carcass’s audacious and masterful Surgical Steel there’s nothing at all ventures outside the band’s comfort zone. This is an album made for fans, those who have missed the band so much they’ll forgive any sense of complacency in the songwriting. Which in itself is a great thing for the old followers, who’ll be plenty satiated. Those with only a passing interest, though, will be left wondering just what the big deal is about, what in actual reality, is just another melodic death metal album. 

Of the dozens upon dozens of new albums out this week, here are more worth noting:

Abysmal Dawn, Obsolescence (Relapse): When a band like Carcass comes back after a very long absence with an album so strong and visionary that it renders all Carcass-derived death metal irrelevant, it can’t be easy for those bands. There they were, carrying on the tradition well, and along comes a record that immediately eclipses everything they’ve been doing. Abysmal Dawn might never be an upper-tier band on the level of Carcass, but they’re one I’ve always enjoyed, and they come through with another piece of work that strikes a good balance between catchy, punishing, and technically challenging. Unlike so many of their peers, this band’s music, while not turning the genre on its ear, still manages to stick with you after listening, especially “Devouring the Essence of God”, “One Percent Incomplete”, and a spirited cover of Dissection’s classic “Night’s Blood”.

Anaal Nathrakh, Desideratum (Metal Blade): What’s always so impressive about the duo of Mick Kenney and Dave Hunt is that for as seemingly chaotic, obnoxious, and overbearingly loud as Anaal Nathrakh’s music is, it’s never short of clever ideas. Once the initial headache of the triggered kick drums and the annoying dB levels start to subsides – I don’t know about you guys, but I always listen to this band at fairly low volumes – the strength of the songwriting takes over just enough to make the entire experience endurable. Always running the gamut from black metal, to grindcore, to death metal, to metalcore, to industrial, it’s schizophrenic but always in control, the melody always the focus. Although Desideratum might not quite be on par with the thoroughly enjoyable albums Passion and Vanitas, this nevertheless will please fans, as well as a few curious onlookers.

Atriarch, An Unending Pathway (Relapse): If there’s one thing about Atriarch, it’s that when the Portland band tones down the blackened doom and cranks up the goth, it hits the spot for me like the yummiest comfort food. And although those metal elements are as present as ever on their new album, especially the doom influence, when these guys are channeling Fields of the Nephilim, and Bauhaus, and early Swans, the music gets damn near thrilling. The best example is the sensational, primal “Collapse”, and the moody, brooding “Rot”, on which singer Lenny Smith cranks up the gothic persona to the hilt, theatrical, confrontational, and deliciously flamboyant. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.

Dawnbringer, Night of the Hammer (Profound Lore): If there’s one slightly frustrating thing when assessing the work of Chris Black, it’s that although he’s regarded by many of us writers – including yours truly – as a supreme, unique talent in heavy metal songwriting, there should be so many more modern musicians making music at that same level. After all, there’s not much to Black’s approach, especially with High Spirits and Dawnbringer, which is firmly rooted in the mid-1980s, a time when metal had no division, and when young headbangers owned tapes by Slayer and Ratt at the same time with no shame whatsoever. To Black, metal isn’t about extremity, it’s about projecting power in a combination of riffs, tempos, and most importantly, melody. In other words, the classic model for heavy metal that existed right up until the end of the 1980s, its best decade. That the genre has expanded greatly since is a beautiful thing, but along the way that classic aesthetic has become a not so much dying but tragically underused art, and Black remains one of the only musicians of his generation who truly understands that feeling, and how to bring it out in music to bracing, beautiful results.

Dawnbringer’s sixth album continues the project’s impressive trajectory ever since teaming up with Profound Lore in 2010, albeit with some tweaks to the approach. As usual, the music echoes the majesty of early-1980s Manowar but with a decided level of gravitas, of sadness. Hard-charging, galloping riffs are offset by mournful doom-inspired passages, as Black, whose singing just keeps getting more and more confident with each new record, weaves his vivid tale of murder, horror, and remorse with the economy and expertise of a master storyteller. The album builds tension beautifully in its first half, with “Nobody There” a foreboding slice of Saint Vitus gloom (“Change is bound to come / You will die alone / And I will die in solitude”) and the brilliant “Xiphias” which references Blue Öyster Cult musically and lyrically, but it’s the second half that pays off in the long run. The two-minute death metal coda “Not Your Night” that follows the album’s highlight “Damn You” and the Mercyful Fate homage “Funeral Child” initially stuck in my craw – my reasoning that imitation is not needed when Black’s own voice is already so strong and inimitable – but dynamically those tracks do serve their purpose well, bringing the record to a stirring climax, leading into the forlorn denouement “Crawling Off To Die”. Even as distracting as those two songs are, Night of the Hammer is still head and shoulders better than the huge majority of metal albums I’ve heard in 2014, which numbers in the hundreds. It’s just a shame that more young musicians aren’t following Black’s lead. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp. 

Devin Townsend, (Inside Out): Devin Townsend has reached a career peak with his Devin Townsend Project, and to see him continue right where the masterpiece Epicloud left off on the gorgeous Sky Blue album is an immense pleasure. He has a very good thing going right now with his immaculate blend of metal, progressive rock, and pop, with the great Anneke van Giersbergen reprising her role as co-lead singer, as perfect a foil as Townsend has ever had. And just like on Epicloud, these dozen songs are knocked clear out of the park. But, and this is one huge, huge BUT, Townsend is also one of the most manic auteurs metal has ever seen, and it’s not good enough for the man to put out Sky Blue as a single album. Instead it’s been packaged as the first half of a double album called Z², and the second half of it, Dark Matter, is a continuation of his absurd Ziltoid the Omniscient project, is as confounding as Sky Blue is beautiful. I understand what Townsend is going for with this cartoonish Ziltoid thing, which started in 2007, with the whimsical concept album feeling like Carl Stalling gone metal, but while it might be a fun indulgence for Townsend, it pales in comparison to what the Devin Townsend Project has done in the last five years. Fans will scoop up this double album, and probably gush at how ingenious “March of the Poozers” is, but in my opinion, if you can’t buy Sky Blue on its own, then listen to that album on the streaming service of your choice. It’s so worth it. Dark Matter, not so much.

Kiss, Love Gun: Deluxe Edition (Universal): The final album of KISS’s great 1970s heyday, and the final album to feature all original four members, Love Gun might not be quite a classic on the level of Alive! or Destroyer, but it’s one I’ve been fond of for decades. Of course that’s primarily on the strength of “I Stole Your Love”, “Christine Sixteen”, “Shock Me”, and the title track, but I’ve always found the deeper cuts endearing. “Got Love For Sale” is a more whimsical turn by the usually lecherous Gene, “Hooligan” works because Peter Criss sells it well, “Almost Human” is return to the heaviness of “God of Thunder”, and “Plaster Caster” will remain one of the greatest songs about ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll decadence. Paul Stanley takes things a little too far into bubblegum territory on “Tomorrow and Tonight’ and the ill-advised “Then She Kissed Me”, but they’re forgivable mis-steps. This new re-release, smartly out on CD only to compel fans buying the new vinyl reissues to shell out another 15 bucks, features a remaster that puts a little more muscle into the music, as well as a full second disc of extras. The 1974 nugget “Much Too Soon” is the most interesting of the lot, a weird little psychedelic ballad that sounds nothing like KISS. The live tracks are spirited and raw, the phone interview with Gene is pointless, and the instructional run-through of “Love Gun” by Paul just night be the dumbest reissue bonus track since the Velvet Underground demos surfaced nearly 20 years ago. In the end, it’s only a buyer if you’re a completist. If you’re not, hang on to your older versions and just give this a listen on the streaming service of your choice.

Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV, Houses of the Holy (Deluxe Editions) (Atlantic): Jimmy Page’s extensive Led Zeppelin remanster/re-release project continues with the two albums from the band’s absolute zenith. Enough has been written about Led Zeppelin IV already. It’s the perfect album, a true definition of a classic, in which Zeppelin hit that rarest of trifectas: creative peak, critical acclaim, and huge commercial success. Heavy, filthy blues (“Black Dog”, “When the Levee Breaks”), folk (“The Battle of Evermore”, “Going to California”), searing rock ‘n’ roll (“Rick and Roll”, “Misty Mountain Hop”), quirky funk (the underrated “Four Sticks”), and one of the greatest songs in rock history (“Stairway to Heaven”) coalesce into a shattering, bombastic, meditative, soulful 42 minute experience that feels epic, nay, mythical. The new remaster is nothing too drastic for an already impeccable sounding record, but the bottom end is more prominent, adding to the album’s already legendary robust tone. The bonus tracks are nothing to write home about, merely arranged to form an “alternate version” of the album for another perspective, which is a novel experience for anyone who knows the original album inside out.

IV might be the definitive Zeppelin album, the de facto classic, but personally Houses of the Holy will always be my own favorite. It’s imperfect, yet has some of the band’s most daring experiments, in which the heavy blues of the first four albums is scrapped in favor of something far more eclectic, progressive, and playful. However, even when it was remastered for the two box sets more than 20 years ago, its eight songs always sounded weak, lacking the force and weight the music needed, especially considering rock’s greatest drummer was behind the kit. Page’s 2014 remaster gets it all right, though, as these songs explode out of the speaker. The surreal “The Song Remains the Same” has genuine punch for the first time, the heartbreaking “The Rain Song” sounds fuller and more vibrant, the doomy “No Quarter” feels massive and ominous, “The Ocean” rocks hard, and the timeless “Over the Hills and Far Away” sounds richer than ever. Even the two throwaways, reggae wank “D’yer Mak’er” and funk jam “The Crunge” benefit greatly from the spit and polish. Again, the bonus disc is a second version of the album in alternate track form, but the real reason to buy Houses of the Holy, and Led Zeppelin IV for that matter, is to hear Page’s incredible, definitive remasters. I can’t wait for the new Physical Graffiti in 2015.

Obituary, Inked in Blood (Relapse): The first album in five years by the Florida death metal greats isn’t exactly a spirited return to past glory, just another steady rehash of everything everyone loves about them. The production is unflattering, but compared to much of today’s extreme metal, it’s actually a welcome deviation, adding a dry, somewhat filthy tone to the record, especially the “Slowly We Rot” style doom of “Pain Inside”.

Riot V, Unleash the Fire (SPV): Good on these guys for continuing the Riot tradition in the wake of the death of Mark Reale, respectfully rebranding themselves as Riot V and putting together a very respectable album of post-NWOBHM/melodic speed metal that would do Reale proud. And better yet, they’ve brought back weird seal-headed mascot Johnny! Well done, fellas.

Sister Sin, Black Lotus (Victory): Why this wonderful little band is still on Victory is beyond me, but if it’s working for them, then that’s swell. These Swedes are always good for some solid traditional metal, and Liv Jagrell is in prime, Doro-style form on this predictable but very enjoyable sixth album.

Unearth, Watchers of Rule (eOne): I just realized the last Unearth album I gave a damn about was III: In the Eyes of Fire, way back in 2006. Which I reviewed for Decibel, come to think of it. After that the Massachusetts metalcore mainstays seemed to slip into a bit of a rut, churning out the albums consistently but failing to equal the vitality of their early work. Plus it didn’t help that Unearth will always be stubbornly metalcore, playing those repetitive At the Gates rip-offs and hardcore breakdowns again and again. Although their best days are behind them, this new album actually amps up the energy for the first time in eight years. You won’t hear reinvention, but you will hear passion on tracks like “The Swarm” and “Guards of Contagion”, which for these guys and their loyal fans, is good enough.

Vesania, Deus Ex Machina (Metal Blade): At first this latest album by the Polish band helmed by Behemoth guitarist Tomasz “Orion” Wróblewski overdoes the symphonic death metal gimmick so much that you think it’s going to be another headache-inducing Fleshgod Apocalypse piece of crap, but as it goes on, its kookier progressive influences creep to the surface. What starts off as obnoxious turns into oddly interesting, highlighted by weirdo tracks like “Vortex” and “Scar”. If only the rest of the album had been like that.

Wizard Rifle, Here In The Deadlights (Seventh Rule): First of all, I love this album’s title. Secondly, I love how the Portland band has expanded its already appealing, manic sound. By bringing in bassist Dave Bow, guitarist Max Dameron and drummer Sam Ford now have more muscle in the Wizard Rifle sound, which not only makes the compositions Melvins-level heavy, but adds a welcome dynamic contrast to such standouts as “Paul the Sky Tyrant” and “Psychodynamo”. As good as their previous album Speak Loud Say Nothing was, this one’s even better. Don’t miss out on this one. Listen and purchase via Bandcamp.

Not metal, but worth hearing: Don’t hate me, but “Shake it Off” aside, Taylor Swift‘s 1989 is ace, becoming the best American pop album of the year by doing something decidedly un-American: acknowledging that less is more. And Run the Jewels‘ savage, masterful RTJ2 (Mass Appeal) leaves me floored with each listen, a raucous, shattering, audacious, and – best of all – eloquent piece of work by El-P and Killer Mike, who display phenomenal chemistry and astonishing sonic daring. “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)”, “Early”, and hell, the entire album proves there are plenty of fresh ideas in hip hop yet.

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