Deafheaven – New Bermuda (2015)

Deafheaven - New Bermuda (2015)
On a less rigorous, and slightly looser site, my thoughts on New Bermuda could be expressed as something along the lines of “whatever”. The music here has been performed before by a cavalcade of metal-themed indie acts, each more individual and revolutionary than the last, yet stunningly conformist for their efforts. Deafheaven enjoys rather more media attention at the moment, even sometimes drawing our attention for their little escapades, but they’re pretty much cut from the same fabric – a few hints of loud guitars and blast beats to liven up boring sugary pop stretched far beyond the limits of its songwriting.

The stylistic deception is pretty shallow, to be honest. I found it mildly amusing that the album began with a few minutes of more overtly black metal flavored material, which was then abruptly cast off in favor of the basic rock riffing and reverb textures that Deafheaven seem to so particularly enjoy. It returns every now in then in case you forget you’re supposed to be listening to the future of black metal, but I can confidently say New Bermuda relies more on the band’s rudimentary modality (major-minor ad infinitum) than their rudimentary dynamics to occasionally wake up a sleepy listener when the soothing, inoffensive guitar strumming has lulled them into a dreamless slumber. The drumming in these sections gradually devolves into basic modern rock downbeats and timekeeping, as if to represent your transition towards a drowsy (indie) state of mind. That probably wasn’t the intent, but the idea that it could’ve been is dangerously tempting.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who tries to fall asleep to music, but were I to treat this as a collection of lullabies, it would still be fairly underwhelming. That it has loud sections at all is counterproductive for insomniacs, but even those are rather predictable in how they play out. The straight ahead black metal sections consistently move sluggishly under the blastbeats, with a vocalist who has learned but one type of shriek and a few basic vocal rhythms. Given how Deafheaven is marketed, that these sections sound like an afterthought is problematic. Maybe the album would be better if it was divested of the clearly unwanted black metal, but then you’d be left with just another unwashed (but charmingly patchouli and spice scented) post-rock/emo/indie-pop album essentially indistinguishable from all the others and guaranteed to gather dust after something newer and more exciting comes out.

I slept well last night. What about you?

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Brouwerij Affligem – Affligem Dubbel (2015)

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What sort of beer would you want at a metal gig? Strong, savage perhaps, but flavorful. What about a metal gig with keyboards? There you might have Affligem Dubbel, a tasty and strong double-fermented beer with a fruity and spicy undertone that is less extreme than found in most Belgian ales. It pours in a thick medium brown stream with minimal head, and immediately presents the scents of a rich beer. In flavor, it is mostly a darker sensation with mostly a malt flavor, some bitterness from spices (coriander in a blend unique to this variety of beer) and as it spreads and warms on the tongue, a fruity flavor like apple and pear baked together with a citrus topping. Alcohol flavor melds smoothly with the beer and is hardly detectable, melding into a strong caramelized flavor with a pleasant aftertaste of molasses. If you want a comparison to more familiar beers, consider this a richer and denser German-style version of Newcastle Brown Ale as made by Belgium corporations… err, Trappist monks (the first hipsters to popularize the beard). At 6.8% alcohol, this beast provides enough of a dose in a single 750ml serving to satisfy the metalhead who still wants to remember the show. Affligem Dubbel succeeds at making a beer for daily enjoyment, which is a process of understanding how flavors meld to make a satisfying beer experience, and its wide availability suggests it is geared for a market other than the foodie-style novelty crowd. It does not yet rise to the level of an iconic taste like many of the best-loved beers, but presents a solid middle ground which incorporates the Belgian style without going over the top. While many of the nu-Belgian style coriander-and-citrus beers are outright disgusting, this one is worth the time and fighting through the burly men with long bears and tattoos who are buying IPAs at the beer counter.

Quality rating: 4/5
Purchase rating: 3/5

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Cornell & Diehl – Billy Budd (2015)

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This enterprising blend combines a raft load of Latakia with a base of Burley and bright Virginia, then salts it with Maduro cigar leaf. This presents a challenge because the Burley and cigar leaf both present dark, rich flavors, in contrast to the sweet of the Virginia and the spice of Latakia. Like lower sounds, however, these dark flavors are stronger than sweet or spicy, which means that bowls of this burn in three levels: first, a friendly but slightly overwhelming Latakia spice; then, a smouldering Burley sensation with undertones of cigar leaf; finally, a merging of the flavors into a pleasant hum of lower registers, with the Latakia emerging as a slight alkaline flavor.

While Billy Budd has its charms, the Burley flavors dominate this blend after the Latakia boils off, which gives it a different flavor than its smell and breaks the balance established by harmony of its ingredients. Cornell & Diehl’s Burley is second to none, and many of us enjoy its rich and nutty flavor, sort of like a cedar-roasted chestnut. In theory, the higher flavors of Virginia and Latakia would balance this out and hide the cigar leaf so that it retained a “condiment” status, but in actuality, the cigar leaf becomes too present and the Burley dominates everything else. The rough cut of this blend, which has big chunks of moist Latakia in with shredded Burley and semi-ready-rubbed Virginia, means that flavors do not occur in a smooth transition as they do with the thinner ribbon cuts from, say, Dunhill. Further, little marriage of the flavors has occurred as happens with blends from Peterson for example. Those little “maturation” processes can make a huge difference, and here it is definitive. This blend has a good start but needs improvement.

Quality rating: 3/5
Purchase rating: 1/5

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What thrived and what died from the 1990s (Part I)

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While the new last.fm redesign seems to me another exercise in pointless self-justification by middle management, the ability to see statistics on my listening has entirely changed how I view the music held closest to my heart. Seeing the numbers has shown me how it is one thing to list a band as a favorite or recommendation, and one far different animal to listen to it on a monthly basis. One is assessment alone, as if listening were your sole task, and the other utility, showing that this piece of music has a place in your life of many tasks and goals.

This assessment filters among the upper level of the highest echelon of metal. The assessment itself filters out the nonsense, all of which suffers from a single sin — disorganization — which takes many different forms but reveals a lack of will, purpose and principle in constructing art and always red-flags a directionless listen. But among those bands who have escaped the madness, there is no equality in listening. Some have risen and some have fallen over 20 years of pounding out metal from my speakers as I work or relax at home. In most cases, the reaction was first shock and then realization that the seeds of this knowledge were there all along. Let us look at a few pairs where listening habits elevated one album over a similar one…

Blasphemy Fallen Angel of Doom vs. Blood Impulse to Destroy

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Over the years metal has frequently benefited from punk influences because metal, as befits its partially progressive rock heritage, has a tendency to create layers of abstraction and complex musical discourse where punk cuts to the chase. This is both a strength and weakness for each genre; metal is abstract, which makes imitators very obvious but can get lost in muddle-headed musical wanderings, and punk is concrete, which makes it effective but imitation easy. Blasphemy introduced a punk-based genre, grindcore, into black metal. It adopted the aesthetic approach of Sarcofago but underneath applied the percussive lower-five-frets texture musik of grindcore. The result is very effective, and easy to listen to, but also — if you have many other options — kind of boring. In fact, many of these riff patterns are the same ones, albeit simplified, that speed metal bands tried and failed to use to revitalize that genre. As raw motivational material, the music is fantastic, but over time, it fades a bit as one realizes that its strength as low-complexity high impact music also means that its content is one-dimensional. Over the past 20 years, I have thrown this record on five times and apparently terminated it early each time.

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I chose Impulse to Destroy because Germany’s Blood also occupies the narrow space of grindcore bands who think like black metal or death metal bands. Grindcore generally self-reduces to extreme minimums and must, like junk food, reintroduce sugar and salt at the surface to spice up the otherwise one-dimensional utilitarian approach. Death metal on the other hand is not utilitarian, while it is consequentialist (“only death is real” being the ultimate statement of that belief) and yet also has a highly aesthetically-motivated but not aesthetically-expressed transcendental outlook. At its best, grindcore overcomes its utilitarian tendencies for a ludic or playful view of the collapsing world, and from that some of the best material emerges. Blood for example creates a dark and morbid absurdism which brings to light all that our society suppresses with itself, and like Blasphemy, creates it through patterning cut from the chromatic strips of the lower registers of guitar. In this case, however, the textures take on a life of their own, like a three-dimensional house made from flat punch-out cards. Different riffs interact with one another and dramatic pauses and collisions give rise to interesting song structures. Like Disharmonic Orchestra Expositions Prophylaxe, Impulse to Destroy provides a wealth of riff archetypes applied with enough personality and purpose to create unique compositions which may be enjoyed for decades or longer despite their simplicity.

Napalm Death Scum vs. Carbonized For the Security

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This is one of those albums that most people get for the sake of novelty. “But check these guys out, they’ve got one second songs and stuff, it’s just about noise…” — rock music does not get more ironic than that. And ultimately, that was the power of grindcore. Like punk a decade before, it removed all the pretense of rock and boiled it down to simple songs. It then sometimes added in new flourishes of song structure which made those songs more interesting than radio pop, which had been studied by MBAs and PhDs and reduced to a simple formula distinguished only (barely) by rhythm, production, instrumentation and vocals. But once the money men and white lab coats were able to look at rock as a product like any other, they saw that to please enough people in the audience to make it a hit, they did not have to innovate at all. They only needed a new skin for the same basic patterns and they could produce it over and over again with high margins (well, until digital piracy hit). Like the punk rock and then hardcore punk, grindcore stripped away illusion and replaced it with innovation. The problem here is that these songs are very similar themselves because they rely on dramatic confrontation within each song, which like all things “turned up to 11” becomes expected and thus a sort of background noise. Every time I have listened to this album it has made itself into sonic wallpaper before the halfway point.

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Some of the albums which were considered “also-rans” back in the 1990s had more to them than people initially considered. This one has been a favorite for me, along with the second album from Carbonized but not the third, for two decades. I listen to it regularly, finish the whole thing, and sometimes start it over. Record labels tried to shoehorn Carbonized into the “death metal” model despite some clear warning signs, and consequently bungled — the root of all evils is incompetence at some level, starting with the ability to be honest — the career of this promising band, but for those of us who lumped this in with aggressive grindcore like Terrorizer and Repulsion, the similarities outweighed the differences. For the Security expresses paranoia, existential insecurity, melancholic doubt of the future and a desire to explore all that life offers in depth, all within and as part of the same outlook. This is the music of a brighter-than-average teenager who perceives the world honestly and rejects the foolishness but wants to look deeper into the interesting stuff that, because it does not affirm the dominant lie, is rejected by the herd. Chunky riffs alternate with broader rhythms derived from punk and yet are dominated by a desire to make song structure vary with content inherited through metal from progressive rock. Each song forms a sonic sigil to the topic at hand and the response of the artist, making each bursting with personality and reality portrayed in finely-observed ways at the same time. This is a masterful album which will never bore.

Roundup

As you can see, Dear Reader, these albums are both quite similar on the surface — and quite different underneath. That bands can do so much with a handful of power chords, and have such different outcomes, is endlessly fascinating. Yet not every metal-influenced album is, even among A-listers like these. It may be time for all of us to go back through our listening, search ourselves honestly, and see what has actually stood the test of time.

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Metalhead pipesmokers unite!

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The old saying goes that those who love to use tobacco smoke cigarettes, and those who love tobacco smoke cigars and pipes. The cigarettes give you a quicker hit because the lungs, with their much vaster absorption area, deliver nicotine to the brain within about three seconds. The cigarette ends within three to seven minutes and the craving subsides momentarily. With pipes and cigars, the nicotine slowly oozes in through the mucus membranes in the mouth, tongue and (sometimes) throat, creating a stronger dose of nicotine but without the sudden “falling off a cliff” sensation. Many metalheads smoke cigarettes, but more are branching out to pipes and cigars for the flavors, more intense dosage and less damage to the body.

Please do not read this as an anti-cigarette rant. They are wonderful, in their own right, and much less work than cigars or pipes. However, burning any leaves and inhaling them directly into your lungs 10-20 times a day would cause some kind of long term health problem as gunk — tar, ash and irritants — builds up on the alveoli. On top of that, our industry and lawmakers have decided to mandate all sorts of processing of the tobacco, so who knows what else is being inhaled. If you would not mind going into a fast food joint, taking home their lettuce, dehydrating it and sitting next to a giant pile of it burning all day, cigarettes might not bother you. And keep in mind that there are brain-boosting benefits to nicotine in addition to resistance to neurodegenerative disorders, an effect which you do not get with the charred salad.

Cigars are beyond the scope of this article, but pipes are its focus. Pipes are essentially little wooden, stone or clay cups for burning tobacco with an inhalation tube attached. The smoker fills the pipe loosely with tobacco, then ignites it with some of the many means available to us ex-hominids, inhaling the smoke into his mouth and savoring it before blowing it outward into the personal space of those around him. While the topic of smoking pipes merits a full book, this article provides an introduction to pipe smoking designed to be as simple and low-cost as possible.

***

To get started, you will need:

  • A pipe. Generally between $35-$65 for a good starter pipe. Look for 0.7inch diameter bowls and filterless stems. This tool may help.
  • Tobacco. This comes in tins and bulk, usually found at Brick and Mortar (B&M) shops, and Over the Counter (OTC) usually found at drugstores and supermarkets.
  • Pipe cleaners. Each time you smoke, you will want to clean your pipe. Pipe cleaners have two ends, so that is two smokes per cleaner. It is not a terrible habit to include a bundle or package of these each time you buy tobacco.
  • A pipe nail. Demystifying this tool: it can be as simple as a key. You use one end to cut up tobacco, allowing it to collapse into an ember, and the other to tamp it after you light it for the first time. Tobacco rises like a demon unleashed when touched with fire, but compressing it allows it to smoulder so you can sip the pipe.
  • Fire. I favor the compressed cardboard matches in matchbooks, but you can use anything. For some, lighters and zippos taste horrible, so they prefer the match. The only trick is to burn off the tip before lighting.

To avoid the usual drama, let us launch into the process of smoking:

You go to some place with little wind, but some air circulation, where you have a comfortable chair. Sitting in it, you take out your tobacco. Holding the pipe over the tobacco container, let the shreds of tobacco fall into the pipe. When it is half-full, gently tamp with a finger. When it reaches the top, pinch from the center to one side and then the other, compressing the tobacco and letting it fall back into place. (Much has been written on this topic, usually under the unfortunate appellation of packing a pipe, when the correct word to use is fill: put tobacco into the pipe so there are no fully empty spaces, but fall short of compacting it so air — necessary for fire and smoke — can flow through. Ignore all other advice.)

Put the pipe in your mouth, holding it gently with teeth and firmly with lips. Light a match, and hold it vertically at a slight angle so the flame climbs the stalk of the match, then when the head has burned off, move the match over the tobacco in slow circles while inhaling. Take the smoke into your mouth and the top part of your throat if you wish, but try to avoid it leaking further down toward the lungs. You can compress it by gently blowing out the air from the front of your mouth, which draws in smoke from the pipe. The best way to inhale that I have found involves flaring the nose and drawing in air slowly but steadily.

My favorite cycle runs in seven second increments. For bigger mouthfuls, draw in your smoke, then keep it in your mouth for three seconds, then exhale and wait another four seconds. For slower sips, take one for about a half-second, then wait at least three seconds before the next. It helps to have a slight background circulation of air to keep the pipe oxygenated and smouldering well.

Many smokers do a “char and light” where they torch the top layer of tobacco, then tamp it lightly because it has risen up as it burned, and then light again to get the resulting compressed tobacco to blaze. At two-thirds through the bowl, it may be helpful to use a poker or the pointy end of your pipe nail to chop up the resulting ember and set it ablaze again. The lighting requirements vary between tobacco types, which will be addressed below.

When no more smoke comes out of the pipe, and you sense that the tobacco has been converted mostly to ash, tap it out into convenient bushes or a metal trash receptacle without a plastic bag. The ash will be hot and melt plastic. To tap out, hold the pipe in your hand and swing it downward to shake the ash out of the bowl. You may have to stir it with poker or nail beforehand.

Then comes the most important part of the ritual. If your pipe lacks a filter, run a pipe cleaner from the mouthpiece into the pipe and leave it there for a few minutes to absorb both direct and ambient moisture. This will keep your pipe fresh-tasting for its next use.

Pipe smokers vary. Some are hard-hitters who blaze through a bowl quickly, where others are sippers who have a pipe going all day for an hour at a time. If you re-light too frequently, or smoke too fast, the pipe may get hot; if this happens enough and to a great enough extreme, it may cause a condition known as “burnout” where the material of the pipe chars and cracks. To help avoid this, smoke on the seven-second method and also, allow some nice thick gunky tar to line the bowl, especially on the bottom. I always smoke some OTC aromatics, which are full of sugary flavoring that bonds together the goo and forms a kind of tar cement, down to the bottom of the bowl to layer it with a nice thick coating of glop. This glop chars over time and becomes a sort of pipe creosote that insulates against extremes.

***

Tobacco originates as leafy plant in the genus Nicotiana, which when cured, dried, pressed and shredded becomes a delicious flammable method of nicotine delivery. The great variations in what are called generically tobaccos occur in the different strains of tobacco plants, and the different methods used to grow, cure, dry, press, and cut the leaves.

That process produces a number of tobacco types, which are then combined in varying amounts into different blends, which you might think of as “tobacco recipes” because they achieve a unique flavor through the ingredients — different types of tobacco — mixed within them. These blends are also distinguished by their cut or how they are sliced, which is related to the flavor and tobacco characteristics in each blend. Many blends are then coated in flavoring known as “aromatic”; if the primary flavor to the smoking blend is the flavoring and not the underlying tobacco, the blend is referred to as an aromatic tobacco.

For the end user, tobacco is then shaped by another force — the consumer market — and placed into the following silos:

  1. Over-the-Counter (OTC). OTC tobaccos are designed for convenience. They are usually either aromatics or a type of shag-cut tobacco that is also used for Roll Your Own (RYO) cigarettes. These burn most easily, cost about $2 an ounce, and are generally mild in both flavor and nicotine level.
  2. Luxury. Like most things in our society, the good stuff only starts when you step off the mainstream and pony up some more cash. You would not buy Budweiser to drink, nor Marlboro to smoke, so you will choose a pipe tobacco made under the brand name of an established firm. A handful of producers make these tobaccos now, but they tend to be stronger and rely more on the flavor of natural tobacco, although many are also aromatics but with a wider variety of flavors than OTC.
  3. Boutique. A cottage industry has sprung up in making this variety of luxury tobacco which aims for unique and intense flavors, sometimes combining aromatic and unflavored tobaccos. These are more expensive than “regular” luxury and are made by a handful of blenders who also own mail-order tobacco shops.
  4. Vintage. In the past, everything was better. People have been saying that for generations, and apparently each were correct: the tobaccos of only 20 years ago were stronger and more flavorful. Luxury tobaccos, once considered regular tobacco, have been stored in sealed tins (if you buy one on eBay, make sure it is also “unopened” as opposed to re-sealed) and are now much sought-after.

I recommend starting with a solid OTC like Carter Hall, Prince Albert, Captain Black, Five Brothers or even Drum. These are the easiest to learn to pipe with, and give you a feeling for what mild levels of nicotine and flavor are like. In addition, they are low-cost so you will not howl and scream if you accidentally ruin a bowl or spill some.

You may find that these are pleasing enough for you and that you are content to smoke them for life. There is nothing wrong with this; many have done so and it provides the least fetishistic and complex smoking experience. Five Brothers stands out from most of these because it does not use aromatic flavoring or propylene glycol (PG), a moisturizing agent added to many OTC tobaccos. If your OTC tobacco comes out of the can or pouch and seems damp, it probably has a good dose of PG. Many aromatics, including those sold at the luxury level, also have this treatment.

From that point, the next stop is an entry-level luxury tobacco. I suggest going with a Dunhill blend because they are widely available, not overly flavored, and tend to be sliced for easy burning. You can generally get a tin of 50g/1.76oz for about $9 online or $15 in the real world, if you are in the United States; this will vary with local tobacco taxes. You may notice that you are paying quite a bit in taxes throughout this whole process, and wonder if that is in fact the impetus for the whole societal jihad against tobacco. Keep wondering. In places like Canada and Europe, they pay multiples of what you pay here. Scary.

At this point, I would stop moving up the ladder. Boutique blends are a variety of luxury blend that costs more and has more unique, ironic, oddball, quirky, and otherwise off-the-beaten path blends. However, it tends to be lower in nicotine content and it is unclear whether these weird little blends are actually that distinct from their archetypes. There are only so many types of tobacco and while many different combinations can be made, most of them resemble a few fundamental types. I have never ventured into Vintage tins and can say that, while undoubtedly these older blends were of a finer quality, that may not have been preserved over the years. Nicotine levels especially degrade. To my mind, the piping experience cannot be separated into “taste” or effect but must include both, and so the fetishism with flavor — even if grounded in science and experience — strikes me as perhaps being a mistake.

Tobacco comes in several cuts which reflect how the leaves are presented:

  • Shag. Cut laterally across the leaf, leaving an interlocked mess like peat moss that loads easily and burns well.
  • Ribbon. “Normal.” Thicker slices that seem to be vertically up and down the leaf.
  • Flake -> Ready Rubbed. Flake occurs when tobacco is pressed in blocks and then sliced; Ready Rubbed is the result of “rubbing out” those slices.
  • Plug. Tobacco is pressed together and allowed to mature that way, then cut into little pucks.
  • Cake. Like a plug, but loosely packed, resulting in a crumbly “coffee cake” style.
  • Cube. Cross-slicing the tobacco produces tiny cubes; sometimes hard to keep lit.
  • Twist -> Slices. Tobacco is twisted in plugs or flake is re-twisted in tubes, then cut into little “coin” shaped bits called slices.

The above simplifies a fairly complex process. You might also enjoy these viewpoints from P&C blender Russ Ouellette and Lane Limited manager Leonard Wortzel.

Multiple types of tobacco dot the landscape. These refer to the strain of tobacco plant and how it was cured and prepared. These are:

  • Burley. Think cigar leaves. This air-cured tobacco has a nutty flavor and higher nicotine and oil than most others. It is used to complement other tobaccos in blends, and is known for its tongue “bite” from high alkalinity.
  • Virginia. High sugar content and sweet natural taste make this type a favorite in many blends. Although this tobacco comes in many colors, its flavor stays within the mild range and makes it the basis of many blends.
  • Cavendish. This term applies to any tobacco that has been aged and cured with a heating process that brings out a fuller taste.
  • Latakia. This is Oriental tobacco which has been cured with smoke from burning oak, pine, juniper and yew wood to give it a bittersweet taste.
  • Oriental/Turkish. Sweet and low in nicotine, this is tobacco grown using the Eastern method of low soil nutrients and plenty of sun, which produces its fragrance and flavor.
  • Perique. Fermentation in its own juices after Burley tobacco is pressed into barrels gives Perique a spicy-sweet flavor. This is generally an additive to other blends to give them some spark
  • Dark Fired. Leaves are cured with smoke under carefully managed heat and humidity, producing a blend both strong in nicotine and flavor. It is used as an additive more than a main ingredient because of its intensity.

For more information, check out Russ Ouellette’s descriptions.

These are used in the following blends:

  • English. Mostly Virginia, with Latakia for body and Oriental tobaccos to provide spice.
  • Scottish. Similar to an English blend, the Scottish blend uses less Latakia and more Virginia, with little or no Orientals.
  • Balkan. Strong in Orientals and Latakia, this tobacco blend uses Virginia to balance those dominant flavors.
  • American. Although there are some similarities to the English, the American blend uses more Virginia with possible Cavendish or Kentucky style tobaccos.
  • Danish. These resemble the English, but with a deeper flavor and less spice, using more Burley and Cavendish but emphasizing stronger, more balanced flavors.

You will probably find yourself shopping by blend, which could be a substitute term for flavor. What type of smoke do you wish to taste tonight? There are several indexes for ranking different blends:

  • Harshness. How much acridity and bite there is. Strong smoke can be hard on the smoker, and “bite” is created by the alkalinity of the tobacco, which raises the pH and increases absorption of nicotine but may also cause a tangy burning sensation on the tongue.
  • Strength. You are smoking a nicotine-bearing plant. How much nicotine is delivered? A tobacco with high nicotine may be worth pounds of low-nic fruity aromatics.
  • Note. This refers to the smell left behind after the tobacco is burned. This influences both your taste of the tobacco, and what your friends, family and coworkers experience.

The de facto standard for tobacco assessments is Tobacco Reviews. Like other crowd-sourced sites such as Wikipedia and Metal-Archives, or reviews on Amazon, it is good for basic factual information and opinions from people whose judgment you have verified and who — as a result — you trust. It is not good for randomly reading reviews because most of them are written by twitchy, bitchy and queeny internet consumers who complain about all the wrong things, like all the irrelevant, and miss the point. Some of the tobaccos rated highly by this site’s users are excellent, but others are simply quirky hipster fodder. Tread carefully, and consider using the various pipe forums out there: Puff, Pipes, Smokers Forum, and Tamp and Puff. The private reviews at this location have endured because they are frequently strikingly accurate. The main point is: find someone whose opinions you respect and tastes who align with yours, even if the exact opposite of yours, and you can figure out what you will like.

***

A word on lighting pipes: some prefer magnifying glasses and sun, others coals from the fire, still others matches and apparently, most like either butane lighters or Zippos. As a diehard match user, I can say that matches fail in the wind, and there is more wind that you might think, but that they seem to create the least influence on taste. Perhaps a laser is appropriate.

The pipe world is full of both facts and lore. Lore refers to anything passed on by groups of humans in social circumstances; the idea is that if it survives a dozen generations, it might be true. In the meantime, you will be wading through mountains of nonsense and worst of all, unnecessary complexity added by people who wish to seem profound or wise. Pipe-smoking is simple: you are lighting dried leaves in a tube and inhaling. The rest is mere adjustment.

The following resources may be helpful for those seeking to know more:

Here are some good places to go shopping for pipes and luxury tobacco:

Places to buy OTC tobacco, which online is sold in bulk:

Resources for those who wish to grow or blend their own tobacco:

Tobacco blenders and brands:

If you do not see your favorite blend, it is probably an imprint licensed to and manufactured by a larger group, or a boutique variety manufactured by one of the tobacco shops linked above.

For kicks, here is a list of famous pipe smokers. You can add me on there when I get famous, but be sure to mention I detest wimpy tobacco and think it should leave the hall.

Finally, the best metal for pipe smoking…

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Grupo Modelo S.A. de C.V. – Modelo Especial

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Many Americans know the comforting brown appearance of bottles of Negro Modelo, possibly the last good decent beer for sale on the shelves of your average grocery store or Wal-mart. The others have fallen to consumerism, which is separate from capitalism because it relies on mass preference, and have become the fast food version: essentially soft drinks with beer flavor and separately distilled alcohol injected. This creates a wasteland of plenty. There are many options, but almost all of them cater to morons, and so the options are paltry.

Modelo Especial turns out to be not a Corona clone, but a relatively rich beer with plenty of grainy taste and some spice behind the sweetness. I was pleasantly surprised since, given its widespread availability, I assumed it was designed for morons. However, its obscurity as a Mexican beer — at the time when most people are drinking hipster microbrews that are universally bad because they overemphasize difficult and obscure flavors over simply making a quality beer — may have protected it from the Great American Gold Rush. Every weekend, millions of zombies leave their undead jobs and get in their cars to go home. Because their heads have been drained of any thoughts by the sheer stupidity and illogicality of what they are called to do, there is one option for the weekend… get loaded! — and they do this by trotting on down to Wal-mart in their golf shirts and buying, well, you wouldn’t want to get the usual mainstream beers would you? Just something enough imported to be quality… that means you go to the 9.7-11.8 cents/ounce category of Familiar Imports… and it turns out most of these are fakes… so you grab whatever looks good, go to the checkout and head home. If you drink five of them quickly you might not notice that they are basically burpwater soft drinks flavored like beer, and get a good buzz going. Modelo Especial has escaped this crazy rush because it remains consistent and marketed at lower income, so it does not have the pretense and “unique/different” factor of hipster beers or Familiar Imports, and thus is bought only by — you guessed it — actual appreciators of quality beer. The crowd cheers.

But this beer, unlike the unfortunate Corona Extra to which it is frequently compared, has an abundance of flavor that is more balanced than it is extreme. The hipster beers shit the bed by trying so hard to be ironic they become subtly disgusting, and the audience of sheep is too neutered to simply stand up and say that these beers are vomit fodder. The Familiar Imports are all basically watery and have a pulpy, rotting vegetation taste at this point. But Modelo Especial carries on, with a slight undertone of the pungent smell of its fermented origins, but mostly a warm and broad taste that works in sweetness like a summer evening. Like Negro Modelo, this is a beer to be enjoyed during normal events in life. It will impress no one from the label, but they will actually enjoy drinking it instead of pretending to like another over-priced over-fetishized hipster brew. Full of warmth, it is like the best of Mexico, a simple but entirely rewarding experience.

***/*****

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Villiger 1888 – Early Day

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This one came to me as a hand-me-down. A friend wrote it off as a clone of Dunhill London Mixture. Being an intrepid sort, I shoveled it into the pipe and lit up, expecting nothing. Surprise awaited instead: Villiger 1888 Early Day is a Danish take on English tobacco that calms its extremes and leaves a deeply satisfying flavor.

Generally, when we think of “English tobacco,” something like the Dunhill London Mixture comes to mind. But really, English tobacco is a state of mind. It is distinguished from the Danish interpretation of it by its appreciation of the clash of flavors. The Dunhill mixes are spicy, sweet and full-bodied all at once; the Danish interpretation balances the three, so that it is full-bodied with hints of flavor from the spice and sweet without overwhelming. In my inner self, I find this to be a better approach, as it reduces a riotous clash of flavors to a comforting taste that deepens the more it is smoked.

Open opening, the tin emits a thick earthy smell like mulch breathing alongside rich earth. When smoked, the characteristic tang of English tobacco appears at first but muted, then fades to a rich dark chocolate taste tinged with the taste of the air from the deep woods. It burns thoroughly, with thick smoke, and avoids becoming the greasy mess that many English tobaccos become after the initial taste. A satisfying aftertaste remains; it can be smoked either fast, or slowly, but burns roughly the same. A sense of balance pervades this entire blend.

While Villiger will never make headlines — in part for the unfortunate name which sounds like “villager,” a term in English that conveys simplicity and mundanity — this tobacco remains undervalued for those who want a quiet smoke that continually rewards the peripatetic puffer with muted flavor and an absence of the extremities that render trendier pipe tobaccos annoying. This would be a good all-day smoke, on a boat or in a living room, for someone who has worked through the need to define themselves with the radical extremes of external objects, and instead intends only to savor the bounty of life itself.

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Taco Bell Diablo Sauce

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Those of us who survive in the concrete jungle or the suburban desert live as we must, which often means foraging within the realms of junk food. This in turn means, because too much of junkfood is merely a conduit to “the beetus” or other early death, to have strong preferences for some junk food over other types. Many of us remain enthusiastic fans of Taco Bell because, despite the high salt content and imminent violent defecation, it remains relatively simple, unsullied and realistically-priced compared to the over-sugared varieties of junk food found at the burger joints. It also eschews the pomposity of “down home goodness” and “hippie health food wisdom” which mark, even in small doses, places like Chipotle and In-N-Out.

As part of its ill-advised campaign to be “more competitive,” which is scurrilous nonsense since it has already captured its self-selected target audience of drunks, college students, scat fetishists and budget-conscious consumers, Taco Bell has made tentative stepts toward expanding its menu to include more varied tastes. As a long time observer, I believe this contradicts business wisdom which would be to instead serve its existing constituency such that it expands, instead of trying to capture audiences from other businesses who are more adapted to what those groups expect. However, it has in addition to some hilarious missteps — the soggy Doritos-in-a-burrito was more than gastronomically dismal — this has brought a number of useful experiments, including the new Diablo sauce. From the beginning, this product faces a steady climb because those who really like hot sauce enough for it to be essential with a fast food meal probably have their preferred poison on hand, but it also may gain an audience of those heading past the sauce counter for some slightly new experiences. Much like the market for spicy sauces sold separately, it navigates a fine line between over-processed and sweetened sauces, and perennial favorites like Tabasco which balance spice with flavor such that one tastes more than spice or the sugar, aromatic spices and fruit extracts added to soften the blow or at least give it an ironic, contrarian or contradictory identity (“it’s a hot sauce, but unlike the others, it has fruits and flowers”).

The first taste of Diablo Sauce, as warned by our local Taco Bell proprietor, is of intense spice. A glance at the ingredients shows that it picks up from where Fire Sauce left off but uses a more intense pepper base, feeling like simultaneously more black pepper and a habanero or more concentrated jalapeno-serrano mix. The result, while warming and very useful to pick up the intensity, falls short on the spice-flavor balance: unlike Tabasco, it is more hot than flavorful and, while it avoids the odious boutique spice flavors that insist mixing mango and cloves with Scottish bonnet peppers somehow makes a “new” taste, it also fails to bring with it the optimized mix of flavors that fire sauce does. Perhaps this means that Taco Bell caved to the extremists — who might be conveniently visualized as drunk bearded men with bandoliers full of specially-bred spicy peppers — and forsook its commonplace wisdom as to what its audience desires, which can be summarized as “spicy Southwestern” since Taco Bell borrows more from Tex-Mex than Mex and more from California Tex-Mex than Tex-Tex-Mex.

The question always presented itself as to whether Taco Bell would make a more spicy Fire Sauce, or a spicy sauce, and the sense I get is that they aimed for the latter while guarding their flank with some inclusion of the former, which runs a risk of pleasing neither group. I suggest they defer to interface: mild, medium and fire are variants on the same flavor, and Diablo should be too on that basis, with the possibility of simply adding a “habanero sauce” (or equivalent, since a concentrated jalapeno-serrano or jalapeno-japones mix will achieve the same result) as an addition to the Diablo sauce. Perhaps this was the intent, since of the eight of us eating the three who appreciate spicy food the most ended up using a 2:1 mix of Fire:Diablo sauces to great effect. In any case, it was a joy to experiment with this new flavor and, while it may not be the end-all for spice fetishists, for those who have the time to mix it in with other sauces it makes for a powerful addition to the Taco Bell palette.

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5 albums that sold out and damaged metal

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When a band is accused of “selling out,” the first instinct most people have is to attack the definition of that phrase. In reality, “selling out” is easily delineated: changing your music/art/writing to reflect what the audience expects.

In metal, selling out usually consists of making the music happier, simpler, less tormented and more pretentious. This allows the people who are dedicated to not noticing anything real about their world to listen to it and have it confirm their existing bias that the best course in life will be to “keep on keeping on” by shopping, voting, bragging at the water cooler, watching television, eating fast food and otherwise being oblivious to everything.

Selling out can be compared to the difference between a home-grilled hamburger and a fast food burger. The home-grilled burger uses real meat, spiced and cooked with care, and does not look elegant but is a good balance of taste and nutrition. The fast food burger is made from ground-up bits of animals, filled out with soybeans and sugar, and most people prefer it because it tastes more like candy and nutrition, lol.

When a metal band sells out, it makes the conscious decision to alter its music to appeal to some audience. This can include an “outsider” audience that only likes ultra-lofi two-chord bands, or the usual meaning, where the music gets closer to big radio pop. When metal bands sell out, they damage metal by bringing in all the stuff metal tried to escape in the first place.

These five albums represent some of the worst sellouts in metal history.

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At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul

The first At the Gates album took our breath away. A weird mix of metal, folk, progressive and classical, it achieved an idiosyncratic voice of its own the way early death metal was prone to do. Then the band faltered, losing a key member and recording albums that did not feel with albums. Suddenly, this new album burst onto the scene and the old school death metal heads rushed forward to find… the exact opposite of what made this band great. Instead of inventive death metal, Slaughter of the Soul brought a warmed-over version of Metallica Ride the Lightning that had been given the Swedish melodic metal treatment. Songs swung easily with simple melodies that would have fit better in a television commercial or schoolyard song, and song structures fit an entirely predictable mold. Nothing challenged the listener; everything was sweetened, like biting into a hot glazed donut with extra icing. It made you feel icky inside, as if you had just been assimilated by the vast mass of people in modern culture who forcibly ignore any incoming ideas which do not fit into their own ego-worship and denial. However, the album was a stunning commercial success and inspired the metalcore movement, in which post-At the Gates band The Haunted applied this template to late hardcore and created a whole new audience.

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Metallica – Metallica

When metalheads first heard “One” on the radio, the general sentiment was worry. We all knew of the temptation of radio metal where bands toured in luxury buses and got loads of cocaine, chicks and fast cars. But …And Justice For All had its musical moments despite the awful rock-style drumming and simplified catchy songs, so the hope was that Metallica had gotten it out of their system. Then came the self-titled monstrosity. The first hint was the choice of eponymous name late in the career of Metallica, which suggested a break with the past. Then, the new logo: silver foil-embossed, stylized and slick. Then we heard “Enter Sandman” on the radio and fears were realized. Gone were the complex song structures and innovative riffs, but the use of melodic composition on guitar persisted from …And Justice For All, albeit in a form that fit well into the MTV lineup. Songs backed away from topics that might unsettle people into fairy tales about fears and personal drama, including the rage drama that Pantera was making famous. Metallica fans hung their heads, neatly folded their tshirts and put them at the back of the drawer, and covered their tattoos with black bars. Metallica had finally sold out.

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Death – Individual Thought Patterns

As the 1990s progressed, death metal emerged as the clear next big thing. This came after nearly a decade of the music industry denying its existence, mocking it, and doing their best to conceal it. A number of them made overtures: if you could just drop the scary alienation, anger and post-human view of the world, maybe The Industry would work for you like it did for the Crue, AC/DC, etc. At this point, Chuck Schuldiner of Death was putting a lot of effort into making himself the founding father of death metal, and he fired his previous band for a mostly new group who came up with a heavy metal/death metal hybrid. That alone would have been bad, but what was worse was that he changed the music artistically as well as stylistically. The rage at a numb, callous and selfish world was replaced with personal drama, overplayed public compassion, and the kind of hollow rage that people sitting in air-conditioned homes direct at a world that “just doesn’t understand me.” Even worse, the music itself became saccharine. The wild lion of death metal became a neutered animal dependent on daily feedings of peer group approval. Not surprisingly, people loved it then and hardly mention it now.

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Morbid Angel – Domination

After the public hounding that Ilud Divinum Insanus received, most fans forgot the previous great Morbid Angel disappointment that essentially fragmented the band. Thousands of death metal bands languishing in obscurity perked up when they saw Far Beyond Driven flirt with Exhorder-styled extreme metal and still make hordes of money. In the timeless and impeccably insane logic of record labels, it was suggested that death metal bands take the same route even though it would mean abandoning their fans and yet not being able to fully dumb down enough for the brocore generation. Morbid Angel came out with this disaster of a fourth album in order to try to bridge the gap and ended up (predictably) failing both. Where previous Morbid Angel albums showed inventive songs, Domination featured one interesting riff per song slowed down and mated with another couple of sludgy, partially doomy, and unforgivably bouncy Pantera-styled riffs. To accommodate the injection of nonsense into death metal songs, Morbid Angel broke them down into simpler songs that resembled the happy go lucky “beer metal” songs of the past: verse-chorus, chanty foot-tapping title of song repeated, and an artistic outlook which more resembled wounded anger than any kind of delving toward a hidden truth. After this album, the band fell apart and reconstituted itself in new forms, trying to recapture some vein of composition that might appeal to lots of MTV-reprogrammed listeners and yet still be death metal. Much like Bigfoot and the perpetual motion machine, it might be out there somewhere, but as of yet Morbid Angel has not found it.

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Dimmu Borgir – Enthrone Darkness Triumphant

As soon as black metal hit the newsstands with stories of church arson and murder, record company stooges devoted many hours of thought to the simple question of how they could re-package it for the Hot Topic kids. Dimmu Borgir found the first workable solution with Enthrone Darkness Triumphant which mixed mall-goth, Cradle of Filth, and carnival music to come up with a style that reveled in its own randomness and made its listeners feel profound for having picked up an incoherent but inscrutable mess. The lush keyboards of mainstream Gothic dance music mixed with the darker rhythms of Nine Inch Nails and guitar influences from rock/metal/rap hybrids in order to interrupt the occasional black metal riff so it never came to fruition. The result became the artistic equivalent of a pop tart: thin bread crust around mystery ingredients mixed with sugar. Naturally, people loved it because it allowed them to “be black metal” (ist krieg!) without leaving behind the same digestible pap they had been swallowing for years under the rock banner. But the CDs seemed to fly out of stores, and black metal fans changed from lonely dissidents to bloated mall denizens looking for a new thrill to blot out the days of tedium as they tried to pretend they wanted to even be alive. Even more importantly, this album opened the door to “black metal” as a container for whatever you wanted to throw in it, which made the truly dark hearts of the record company execs jump with joy and visions of bank transfers.

Image: would you trust a cigarette company with marijuana? Most likely, they would do to it what they did to tobacco, which is remove variety in flavor and replace it with innocuous but consistent brand-perfect sensations.

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