Attitudes toward metal differ between Europe and the United States with the UK in the middle. One thing remains certain: until metal started prettying itself up with accepted genres like lite-jazz and indie rock, and adopting socially cherished “civilized” attitudes, it got nowhere on a big scale.
In vaunted music magazine NME Lars Ulrich (Metallica) attacks the perceived class divide between hard rock/heavy metal fans and the “sophisticated” mainstream rock audience:
In an interview for BBC 6 Music, the Metallica drummer and founding member complained about the media’s attitude to hard rock. He continued: “People have short attention spans in 2014… They like things broken down into easy, digestible sound-bites. It’s like, Metallica at Glastonbury, what’s the sound-bite? ‘Here comes the big bad heavy metal band to our precious little festival.’ I don’t think it’s genuinely like that… but there obviously are people who snub their nose a little bit at hard rock, and look at hard rock as inferior or lower-class, some sort of lower music form or something, and [think] that the people who listen to hard rock are less educated.”
Speaking about the same festival, the Glastonbury pop fest in the UK, Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden) voiced a similar viewpoint but more from another angle — mainly an angle of attack:
He said: “In the days when Glasto was an alternative festival it was quite interesting.
“Now it is the most bourgeois thing on the planet. Anywhere Gwyneth Paltrow goes and you can live in an air-conditioned yurt is not for me.
“We’ll leave the middle classes to do Glastonbury and the rest of the great unwashed will decamp to Knebworth and drink lots of beer and have fun.”
American fans are used to this. In movies and books we are portrayed as the blue collar dropouts who work in garages and smoke too much dope to compensate for failure at life. This reveals both a snobbery against blue collar labor that is unconscionable, and the pretense of those making the distinction. They like to think they’re elevated to a higher grade of person because they’ve choked down eight years of education and work in office jobs (and only smoke expensive dope from exotic locales).
This stereotype both serves media interests and belittles metal. It enables the media to have an easy cue for its “bad boy” characters and to sell products based on that “rebel without a clue” image, but it also lets them subtly inform the rest of us that they, the writers and producers, are obviously much higher in the evolutionary chain than us neanderthals.
Indie rock and lite-jazz appeal to such people. The more precious and deliberately weird their music is, the more “educated” they assume they are. In the meantime, it’s metal fans out there who not only keep music from falling into an abyss of self-congratulatory clones, but also keep our infrastructure running. Whether we’re blue collar or something else, we’re realists… and we make sure stuff works while the rest of these clowns are posing.
If I ever have to declare a field of study — and I hope I never must — I will declare my intention to study transitional material. It is the most fascinating by far, and Black Sabbath Tyr demonstrates why.
Emerging in the final days of the 1980s and the first days of the new decade, Tyr shows Black Sabbath trying to keep one foot in what succeeded in the previous era while gesturing at inventing the next. The band is not bold enough to simply invent it, since they are too invested in being an industry in themselves. That puts them in the position of defending what they have by incorporating the current, not by redefining it and trying to become something new.
The 80s influences are most painful in the vocals, which bring back flashbacks to Miami Vice and War Games. The 1980s were above all a sentimental time: the late 60s had changed the nation, and now we were in the grips of a Cold War that threatened to eliminate us all in the absolute erasure of kill zone radius extermination. People sought emotion, a fleeting sense of beauty and hope in the night, before the coming darkness swallowed all. It was really a prolonged version of what Berlin must have been like in 1945, but no one could recognize it. They buried themselves in things: in work, in religion, in warfare or in ideology. And so the 1980s sound is that of the lover glimpsed on a passing train, a moment of hope in the doom, a taste of what could have been, drowned out in mechanical rumblings and coalescent submerging blackness.
While the elements of the proto-metal/prog fusion that Black Sabbath pioneered by adopting the longer phrase moveable melodies of modernist classical influenced Italian horror movie soundtracks are still present, the majority of the riffing on this album resembles 1970s hard rock emulating the electronic rhythms of 1980s pop. It’s not surprising that Ministry may have borrowed a few rhythm/riff-idea combinations from this album, given the raw creativity put into them and their mutual inspiration in the basis of 1980s “industrial” music through electronic body music (EBM). Black Sabbath balance the shorter, more mechanical hard rock riffs with their usual spanning chord progressions that give the sense of the camera pulling back to reveal a vista.
The result is highly melodic and merges with the vocals which sound like they’re right off a Mike & The Mechanics or Red7 record. The result neuters Sabbath to an uncomfortable degree because the focus is on vocals and synths and the guitar takes a rhythm role that supports those from the background. That has not stopped guitarist Tony Iommi from coming up with some rather odd and noisy variations on the riff that he uses to add uncertainty and a sense of being lost in a windswept plain to the otherwise more straightforward compositions.
Where Black Sabbath reach toward the future is in the layout of these songs and album. They are deliberately expanded structures with more variation between them, like scenes in a movie or different rooms in a house in a pursuit dream. This both reflects the influence of MTV and the increasingly technological nature of music which allowed radical changes in instrumentation, thus musicians could stick in entirely radical dynamic changes and have them work as more than a distraction. The album follows the same thought process, beginning with an acoustic introduction with semi-chanted vocals, as if invoking the Druids and giving the entire production a visual leadoff. The album itself moves like a conversation, starting with its most obvious big points and indulging in all the conventions of its decade, but then gradually bringing those back to roots and then expanding them with the final tracks, notably “Heaven in Black,” where hints of a more metal-oriented Sabbath emerge (especially in its recapitulation of the riff-idea for “Symptom of the Universe,” which as my colleague Martin Jacobsen writes, precapitulates the muted-strum technique used by all speed metal bands). Much of this anticipates the more epic conceptual and structural layout of both songs and albums that black metal and death metal would popularize; it is unclear whether Black Sabbath heard early prototypes of this notion, such as Bathory Blood Fire Death, but the similarities are great as they are to later Judas Priest like Sin After Sin and Iron Maiden’s epic 1980s material such as Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Interesting also is the choice of Odinist thematic matter wrapped in Celtic imagery, as if questing for a new identity for metal that united its past with future.
Tyr shows Black Sabbath twenty years into their career. They are less innovators than standard-bearers and so their tendency is to absorb outside influences and translate them into heavy metal to give their genre relevance in the wider world. There are also other influences from within the metal world, such as a notable increase in Iron Maiden-styled galloping riffs and broader themes. As one reviewer once said, some albums are more interesting than good for listening to, and thus are more compelling to write about; Tyr may be too 1980s for me to listen to again, and I remember chucking it across the resale counter at a used CD shop over a decade ago for that reason. However, it shows us a nodal point for heavy metal in its evolution and anticipation of the next era.
As far as books about metal go, there’s nothing more hardcore than an encyclopedic reference because by nature these attempt to include everything. Janne Stark wrote The Heaviest Encyclopedia of Swedish Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Ever! to keep track of the Swedish hard rock / heavy rock / metal scene, but we found it even harder to keep track of him.
For example, Stark is listed as participating in three dozens, including Overdrive, Overheat, Faith, M.O.B., Flash, TNT, Alyson Avenue, Sir Lord Baltimore, Thalamus, Chris Catena, Audiovision, Vii Gates, Narnia, Grand Design, Blinded Colony, Spearfish, Audiovision, Tower Of Stone, Teenage Rampage, From Behind, Planet Alliance, Balls, Constancia, Locomotive Breath, Mountain Of Power, Zello, Nicky Moore Blues Corporation. This is only a small slice of his participation in music, however, as he’s also a music journalist and author.
Stark was good enough to give us the time for a mid-length interview, which was conducted over coffee in the fashionable Swedish borough of Östermalm. Err… we wish. Stark was good enough to conduct this interview through old-fashioned 7-bit email, but we got some interesting answers.
Sweden has fewer people than the city I live in, yet produces more quality heavy rock, hard rock and metal bands. Is there something in the Swedish outlook that is responsible for this disparity?
I’ve had that question a lot of times. I think it has to do with several different things. Music has always been important in Sweden, folk music, singing in choirs etc. ABBA came along in the seventies showing Swedish musicians it was actually possible to break through on a big scale outside of our borders. We also have a really good (and cheap/free) tradition of music schools and the ability to learn an instrument in school. We also have the possibility to start a study circle, within a band, where you can get free/cheap rehearsal space, the possibility to record and even arrange gigs. I also think Swedish bands in general are about the music and learning to play, that getting an image and just pose.
Sweden may have partially invented death metal and black metal through Bathory. Are there are other contributions on the road towards death metal that you found interesting?
Yes, Bathory were definitely the forefathers of primitive sounding early black metal in Sweden. Later on there’s of course also the Gothenburg sound and bands like In Flames, Dark Tranquillity and At The Gates, where they started mixing more melodic and traditional metal influences with the traditional death metal sound. Swedish bands have always looked to the UK or US for influences, but I think a lot of the bands have managed to put a slightly different twist on it. Take for instance progressive bands like A.C.T or Pain Of Salvation, and then you have classic heavy metal bands like Hammerfall and Wolf who have mixed the German and UK styles of metal with a Swedish twist to it.
There’s something about the way Swedish bands write music that seems to lend itself to heavy metal, and it’s broader than the legendary Swedish melodic sense. Do you get the feeling such a thing exists?
I think it’s basically that we borrow a lot of influences from outside and blend it with the quite traditional Swedish folk touch that is in our mothers milk, whether we know/like it or not. On another note, it’s also quite interesting how several Swedish hard rock/metal musicians have become very successful in writing for pop and dance acts. People like Thomas G:son (Masquerade), Peter Carlsson (Bedlam), Anders Wickström (Treat) and not least Max Martin (It’s Alive) and Johan “Shellback” Schüster (Blinded Colony) have all become highly acclaimed pop composers who have written hits for N’Sync, Britney Spears, Pink, Lady Gaga etc.
You refer to this book as “the heaviest” encyclopedia of Swedish heavy rock and metal, and it definitely is heavy in two senses, both content and the physical weight of the book. How long did it take you to compile this monster?
It’s the heaviest in many senses. It’s definitely the heaviest when it comes to its sheer weight, 3.7 kilos (8.5 lbs) and the amount of bands featured in it (3,600), but it was also the heaviest one to get out of my system, to decide when it was time to wrap it up and get it out. When the second book was released in 2002, I simply continued compiling information. Not detailed information, but more like making notes to check this band out, check this site out, I made continuous notes of special releases and such. Then, a little more than three and a half years ago I decided Now it’s time. Then I started following up all the leads, compiling all info of the bands, took all the info from the first two books, updated and corrected and all the stuff I had noted about these bands. I made one document for each letter and just started all over again, from A to Z (well, actually the last letter is Ö in the Swedish alphabet). When I felt I was finished I started doing layout, but waited with the band pics etc until last as I was still adding last minute information and bands. I then had three people proof read it, an Englishman and a music nerd friend, plus my wife (also a hard rock nerd). In September 2013, I sent in the final PDF files to the publisher and it was off to the printers, and nothing more I could do. Sheer agony at that point!
What kind of research resources were available to you? Is there much printed information on rock music in Sweden, or did you have to spend most of your time interviewing people?
When I did the first book in 1996, there was no Internet and it was all phone calls, contacting bands, music clubs, record stores etc. Now the information is all over the place, the problem is to collect, find and sort out what is the CORRECT information. Anybody can write anything on sites like Wikipedia etc. and suddenly it’s the truth. It’s been as much about checking and double-checking this time around. I’ve listed the sources I’ve used in the book, but it’s anything from www.metal-archives.com, www.musikon.se and www.rockdetector.com, to Ebay, Tradera, Discogs and bands/labels sites to find all catalogue numbers, different pressings etc. There’s a couple of metal magazines and webzines here as well, plus books and websites covering local scenes, where I’ve found some additional information. I’ve also contacted a lot of people through Facebook etc. I’ve tried to get in touch with as many bands as possible.
From the looks of this massive book, you got every heavy band that Sweden has ever produced. Did you miss any? How did you find out?
I’m sure I’ve missed some, even though I do think I’ve covered 95% this time. There’s always going to be the local metal band that printed 250 copies of a single, sold it to some friends, tucked the remaining copies away in an attic and went on with life. These things pop up now and then, still! Plus some bands, especially when it comes to black metal, are intentionally secretive and only sell their limited vinyl release to “true” fans. But, that’s the beauty of it. Trying to find those hidden gems!
Swedish death metal won me over the minute I heard it. Do you normally listen to death metal? Did the sounds of Swedish death metal tempt you to go over to “the dark side”?
The thing is, when I wrote the previous books I wasn’t into death or black metal at all. But, for this book I’ve listened to ALL bands in it, and there’s a LOT of death and black metal. As a result I’ve actually come to like a lot of these bands, the more melodic stuff like Soilwork, The Haunted, Sterbhaus, In Flames and Unleashed, but also stuff like Watain I’ve come to like. My first choice of music is however still seventies influenced heavy rock/metal and bands like Spiritual Beggars, Mojobone, Grand Magus etc.
Can you tell us about your background as a writer and in music? This obviously isn’t your first project.
I got into music very early on and started playing guitar around the age of nine, made my first demo with the band TNT back in 1977, recorded my first single with the band Paradize in 1979 and formed Overdrive in 1980, with whom I’ve made a bunch of records. I also started doing some reviews for a local zine in 1982-83. My writing got more serious in 1989, when I started writing and reviewing for Backstage Magazine and since then I’ve written for a lot of magazines such as Hard Roxx, Kool Kat News, Sweden Rock Magazine, FUZZ Magazine etc. I did my first encyclopedia in 1996 and the second one in 2002. At the same time I’ve also made records with bands like Locomotive Breath, Mountain Of Power, Zello, Planet Alliance, Constancia etc. I still play in Overdrive, Constancia and Grand Design.
How did you get the confidence to tackle such a massive work? (It can’t all come from the writer’s famous “courage in a can” — coffee — itself, can it?)
Well, to be honest, it’s a combination of sincere interest for Swedish metal, being a music nerd and, yes, lots of strong, fine Swedish coffee. Besides beer and booze, it’s the only “drug” I’ve ever touched!
If you had to select five heavy and/or metal acts from Sweden to convince a newcomer that this scene is vital and worth investigating, what would they be?
As there are such a variety of styles within the Swedish scene I’d pick accordingly, so to check out the melodic death metal scene go for Soilwork, get some classic heavy metal with Grand Magus, some high class AOR with Eclipse, doom with Avatarium and progressive rock with A.C.T. To start with.
What’s next for you? Will you continue music journalism? Where do readers go to find out more about your work?
I still write and review for FUZZ, Metal Central and Metal Covenant when time allows it. I also have my own reviews blog and I’m now working on my next book entitled The History of Swedish Hard Rock and Heavy Metal, which will be as the title says, a more history-based book on the Swedish metal scene from the late 60s and until today with stories, interviews with prominent Swedish bands etc. Not sure when it will be finished, but I’m working on it. I’m currently also working on two new albums by Constancia and Grand Design for release in 2014. We’ve got lots of gigs booked for Grand Design as well as Overdrive. High Roller Records are also re-issuing the first Overdrive album on vinyl with an entire bonus LP of demos. No rest for the wicked!
Since the popularization age of search engines began, some have wondered if this spelled the impending doom of paper encyclopedias. If heavy metal is any indication, traditional methods of distributing information are still enduring.
Newly released tome from Premium Publishing, entitled The Heaviest Encyclopedia of Swedish Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Ever!, compiles information on the Swedish scene from the early 70s through the present day. Written by Janne Stark, the book lists releases from 3600 bands with short biographical information for each, notably a format reference for each album, in addition to a index searchable by both area and name. There is also a section on visual history, featuring album art and unpublished band photos.
Heavy metal music gets a bad rap, not just from people who dislike it, but from people who claim to like it. The problem is that criticism draws attention to the speaker, so there’s no better way to stand out than to stand up and say, “All of this is wrong!”
While some critics of the current way are motivated by a desire to create useful change, most people are motivated by self-interest and change for change’s sake, which lets them seize attention and/or power. Opeth’s frontman Mikael “Mick” Åkerfeldt recently attempted such a power grab.
His statements, recorded in a Metal Hammer interview via Metal Injection, are harshly critical of metal but suffer a gigantic logical “plot hole” that makes them totally nonsense.
First, here’s Mick’s statements:
In metal, evolution doesn’t seem to be that important. I think most metal fans just want their Happy Meals served to them. They don’t really want to know about what they’r getting.
For a while, I thought metal was a more open-minded thing but I was wrong. Maybe it’s different from country-to-country. Don’t get me wrong, I love metal, but I’m also open-minded.
I admire some bands that do the same record over and over again – I wonder how they don’t get bored! For us, and Anathema, it seems impossible for us to stay still.
Take a quick glance at that last paragraph. Therein is the point of this whole diatribe: he wants you to like his album. Summary: Our record is totally different and unique, everyone else is bad, buy our record.
Then let’s look at the first paragraph. He says something nasty, which is the “Happy Meals” comment. Happy Meals are not just soulless junk food, but they’re also for kids. He’s saying you’re being spoon-fed baby food.
Then Mick makes some accusations:
[Metal] “evolution doesn’t seem to be that important”
“They don’t really want to know about what they’re getting”
Metal is not “open-minded”
Other genres are “open-minded”
Metal is boring because the albums by the same band are similar
His assertion that metalheads “don’t really want to know about what they’re getting” seems to make zero sense in a world where people download albums before buying them, or at least hear them on YouTube or via label-sponsored streaming on SoundCloud. In fact, metalheads have always wanted to hear the album before buying, even when they had to do it with CD players and headphones in record stores (as in the 1990s). It seems as if metalheads are picking albums for reasons that Mick just doesn’t understand.
It’s good to ask ourselves if the words he’s using mean what he thinks they mean. For example, what does “open-minded” mean? Does it mean you listen to something, experiment with it and reject it? Or that you include it in the album? On one extreme, “open-minded” means you never throw out an idea if it’s unusual. That obviously makes no sense. On another extreme, “open-minded” can result in you making very similar music if you reject other stylings for logical reasons related to your intent in making that music. For example, if I’m writing an opera about the downfall of a dynasty, including a sudden burst of cheerful carnival music might be completely inappropriate and defeat my purpose in writing that music.
This leads us to the biggest point here, which is that Mick is playing definition games. Without similarity, a genre doesn’t exist. We can call things “heavy metal” because they’re more similar to each other than they are to other genres, or because they have certain central tenets that correspond to beliefs. For example, that dark angry music should be “heavy,” which usually means distortion, minor key, complexity, unusual twists and turns. Or that the genre should use riffs in ways unlike rock, blues, jazz, etc. Or that its riffs should have an internal dialogue, as death metal does, which cause the chromatic equivalent of melodic evolution.
Without that similarity, the genre doesn’t exist. This is proven by Mick’s own decision to incorporate other elements in his work. He has affirmed the genre by saying he wants to operate outside of it. This implies that he recognizes metal by its similarity, which makes his complaining about it seem ludicrous. Further, when he’s saying that metal is “closed-minded,” what he’s really saying is that it doesn’t include other genres in itself, at which point (somewhere) it would cease to be metal, as he has acknowledged his own next album will do. This is the gigantic logical “plot hole” in the midst of his statements.
We could turn his argument around on him and say that he is in fact the “closed-minded” one. If he has to turn to other genres, it’s because he can’t figure out a way to make variety in metal. In part, this may be because he has literally closed his mind to the possibility of there being variation in metal (and this usage of “closed minded” seems more accurate) and can’t understand it or perceive it and thus, can’t reproduce it. If he looks at metal and thinks that Demilich, Gorguts, Incantation, Suffocation, Asphyx and Varathron are all doing the same thing, of course he’ll have to turn to other genres. He can’t perceive vast musical variation within metal.
This perhaps explains a lot about Mick’s band, Opeth. I first heard Opeth while standing in the Wild Rags store when Richard C. put a copy of Orchid on the stereo. Against his subtle advice — “it’s OK, might not be your thing” — I bought it, and spent the next dozen years regretting it before I finally sold it off for book money. My perception of Orchid was that it was the work of a band that did not want to be a metal band, and that they had one primary technique, which was to play up the dynamic change between acoustic and distorted music. They were far from the first to discover this technique, which was later used by nu-metal bands in the same way Opeth used it, which was multiple times in a song to create a verse/chorus differentiation. Here’s Death using a more tasteful version of the technique:
I noticed some similarities between Opeth and the Swedish bands who went before (Opeth was formed in 1990 by guys who had previously been in second-string Swedish speed metal and heavy metal bands). Swedish death metal had experimented with softer sounds before and the use of acoustic instruments, but had used them to atmosphere effect, instead of relying on a simple binary contrast. For example, check out this track from Cemetary which came out a year after Opeth was formed:
Another band that deserves a comparison to Opeth is Tiamat (formerly Treblinka, before they realized how that name could be mis-interpreted). Tiamat also did not want to be a heavy metal band, but a blues-hard rock band with a softer vibe like the English Gothic pop that was in vogue some years before. They had a very pop vibe and used acoustic guitars to set up contrast for crashing distortion as well, and also liked to incorporate lots of other genres:
Opeth got famous not on their “open-mindedness,” but rather on playing to the image they had for fans. The early Opeth propaganda coming out from the labels suggested they were progressive and that, while most metal fans wouldn’t understand the complex and nuanced work of Opeth, those who could understand it would love it. If you’re an underconfident teenager, this takes you from zero to “I know something you don’t know” in four seconds. It’s a win for marketing and you’ve probably already noticed that it’s exactly parallel to Mick’s statements about “closed-mindedness.” Summary: Other people don’t understand us, but if you like us then you’re presumed to understand us and thus, you must be both able to appreciate greater musical complexity and open-minded.
As you can see, this whole kerfuffle is based in marketing and not reality. Opeth doesn’t care about “closed-mindedness” in metal any more than I care about orphaned chinchillas in Williamsburg (no, I do… I really do). This is about selling you records by appealing to your damaged self-image and giving you a way of feeling better than other people. That’s the same reason Opeth sold themselves as a progressive band despite lacking the melodic complexity, variable song structures, epic symbolism equated to melodic development and other factors of the original 1970s progressive rock bands. Opeth isn’t progressive; this is progressive:
And if you’re actually “open-minded” and can see past the narrow expectations defined for you by other media and social forces, this is progressive death metal:
What do musicians do when the drive to create has vanished?
When the label is clamoring for something new, does the band bow down and fulfill the request, or do they uphold standards? Black metal in particular has struggled with these questions for over a decade, with a myriad of responses. Some have chosen to retreat completely, seeking refuge in the wild.
Some have become exasperated with the genre, turning to electronic music before returning in glory. Others have waged war on modernity, risking well-being in pursuit of these goals. However, the greatest number have bowed to the wishes of the crowd and released a product that was quickly forgotten, which is where Satyricon’s self-titled album falls.
Embodying all that is lazy and lethargic, Satyricon is an excellent example of modern black metal ethos. Black metal only on the surface, the album is musically a hard rock/heavy metal album designed for max promotional appeal. Simple riffs with obvious sequencing, simple implementation, and solid production produce a well-shaped package that undoubtedly will allow the band to increase its commercial influence.
Sounding like a tribute to Fallen-era Burzum‘s minor-chord noodling but lacking even what little sense of spirit that album possessed, the band chucks in references to pop and blues cliches as if the label funded a study aimed at producing the most cookie-cutter album conceivable, then shared the results to the band…and let’s not delve into the collaboration with Sivert Høyem.
There is nothing here for readers of this site to enjoy, except for the more morbid members among us. This album goes nowhere. It has nothing to impart. And perhaps most damning, it’s not even terrible. It is simply a non-entity.
Your average person perceives music as good and bad, with a whole lot of bad and some good. The truth is more shocking: truly bad is rare like truly good, but the vast majority is just so-so.
So-so occurs not because an album has too much bad, but because it doesn’t have enough good. And this isn’t a by-the-pound determination. It needs to be good in a number of ways, including structurally and conceptually, or it devolves into chaos. Randomness. Disorder.
The average album usually has no defects. The instrumentation is good, the production is good, and individual members put in strong performances. They can write songs according to the book, and often have a unique concept. It just doesn’t hold together because it lacks a central idea.
Withdrawal is an example of a truly bad album. It is not bad because it is incompetent, but because it is whore. Woe takes the techniques of orthodox black metal and applies them to hard rock with touches of indie. This produces disorder with a face value different from its content.
On the surface, this album emulates Gorgoroth and Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger; a little bit under the surface, you find Ulver and Taake. Dig down deep enough and you find recycled Def Leppard and Quiet Riot riffs, with repetitive use of black metalTM technique like blast beats, melodic drone, bad production, and so forth.
As a product, Withdrawal is great because it’s open to everyone. On the surface, it’s rebellion; underneath, it’s the same complacent crap your parents were listening to. Maybe it’s a good pop album; I got bored halfway through. But it’s not black metal.
What’s an obviously hard-rock band doing on a deathmetal website? The answer is that it’s good to remember that there’s decent mainstream metal out there, but that all of it shares a singular trait: it stops trying to be cute and focuses on being heavy metal.
Rabbits sound like a three-way cross between MGMT, Crowbar and Motley Crue. The result is a somewhat violent psychedelic sound with a horde of riffs cut from familiar cloth that yet hold their own because they help this band deliver the experience it promises, which is chaotic and semi-antisocial modern (post-”alternative”) metal with deep roots in the world of gritty hard rock.
You’re not going to stagger back from this foaming at the mouth and proclaiming it genius, but you may enjoy it for its messy take on what metal would be if it weren’t focused on being so cute twee, deceptive, clever, etc. It’s just a rockin’-out experience, like Red Fang but without the smarm.
I read the news today. There was another miracle cure for cancer. In six moths, they’ll publish a retraction. What does this mean? Don’t take it at face value; ignore the hype.
In the same way, a lot of CDs come out that have interesting backstories. So-and-so is a progressive musician who turned to metal. Genius awaits. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. So unique they don’t even have a category for it, so we’ll put the genre names in scare quotes.
Then there’s Lalu. Promised as progressive rock/metal. Actuality: terrible hard rock with semi-difficult riffing and time changes, but no melodic development, unique song structure, or even musical complexity beyond technique.
I can’t blame the labels. It’s their job to hype stuff. I can’t blame the band; it must be like watching money walk by to see these other bands succeed. I blame the listeners, and some other reviewers, for not calling this what it is.
If you really liked Quiet Riot, and wished it had jazzier tempos and more intricate lead rhythm riffs with slightly dissonant melodies, then this is your lucky day. If not, you’ve already wasted too much time on it.
From the opening dual guitar harmonies straight out of 1985 that bring to mind the live intro to a Europe or Stryper set, it’s obvious that this album will be more in line with the guitar hero pop-metal of Arch Enemy than anything from Symphonies of Sickness or Reek of Putrefaction.
To some degree, that’s to be expected. Carcass threw in the towel on forward momentum long ago (1991) and have resorted to playing up their namesake for the purpose of phoning in stadium metal for the aesthetically overblown Wacken age, and Surgical Steel is perhaps their most commercially flexible attempt at filtering late model radio format speed metal through a death metal aesthetic filter, where actual death metal technique is limited to tremolo picking, blast beats, and Jeff Walkers vocals.
Carcass joining an elite cadre of financially successful bands by doing so, starting with At the Gates’s Slaughter of the Soul and even Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven. Let me state it again for those who wish to be millionaires: the appearance of being an outsider to a society nearly universally loathed by its inhabitants, with an underhanded delivery of comfortingly familiar derivative works that by their obedience affirm the social order, will always be a financial success. It allows the appearance of rebellion with none of the actual costs. It’s like artistic insurgency tourism.
Surgical Steel ends up being a mix of Swansong‘s Thin Lizzy-isms applied to the framework of songs like “This Mortal Coil” and “Doctrinal Expletives.” These songs have more to do with Mike Amott’s recent Wacken pandering than anything on Heartwork. “A Congealed Clot of Blood” resembles a “revisited”, more uptempo version of Swansong‘s “Don’t Believe a Word” and the last song, brings to mind the best years of Sanctuary with its sentimental melodic guitar intro, or evokes the Overkill ballads “The Years of Decay” and “Soulitude” with its emotional framing and pacing.
Some tracks like “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System” attempt aggression by utilizing the same speed metal meets extreme music technique as “Carnal Forge” from Heartwork, but with the obvious “money riff” effect of the dual harmony guitar part that is the focus of these songs. The reversion to old lyrical themes (based off the song titles and album artwork) seems like misdirected fan service as these songs would probably win over more people from the Century Media crowd if the lyrics had the same simple “emotional” topics that songs such as “No Love Lost” had.
While this album may appease the simple appetites of those who merrily purchase Arch Enemy and Children of Bodom albums, many songs try to deviate from the verse-chorus stylings with an overloaded, ill-fitting bridge that detract from their simple nature. This divided nature may keep Surgical Steel from being as successful as recent Hypocrisy or Slaughter of the Soul in the arena of stadium faux-death AOR metal for drunken Wacken attendees.
Again, we say: if your heart is no longer in death metal, don’t bother. Start up a project band and transition into progressive rock, classic rock, or whatever it is that actually appeals to you. Explore your new musical pathways. It’s just as much a sell-out to try to “stay true!” when you no longer care as it is to make Justin Bieber-styled pop because you know ten million teeny boppers from the ‘burbs will buy it. Musicians, chase your dreams. We get the best of your talent that way, even if we have to transition genres to appreciate it.