Slayer – Show No Mercy

December 4, 2014 –

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On December 3, 1983, a force of unparalleled musical terror was unleashed upon a more innocent world. Combining the high speed strum detached from percussion used by Discharge with the architectural riffing of Judas Priest and the melodic understructure used by Iron Maiden, Slayer created a new style of heavy metal which exceeded all previous efforts.

While Show No Mercy sounds tame compared to later Slayer effort Reign in Blood (1986), for the time it revolutionized metal and punk alike. Most metal of the era was still recovering from the mid-1970s slump that occurred when Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin were hybridized into a new rock-based style, manifesting after a brief revolution in the NWOBHM as the usual lowest-common-denominator crowd pleaser in acts like Motley Crue. Slayer brought back the longer phrasal riffs used by Black Sabbath and through the tremolo strum added greater flexibility and detached chord changes from the beat of the snare, which allowed the guitar to dominate composition and relegated drums to timekeeping. This in turn gave the band more options for varying riffs within a phrase and escaping the verse-chorus pop radio song format that had infected metal in the previous years.

Even outdoing other hardcore punk/NWOBHM hybrids like speed metal bands (Metallica) and thrash (DRI), Slayer created a fury that could also be beautiful. To this they added a mythological view of humanity and the ongoing collapse of Western civilization, placing us into a mode of viewing it as a conflict between good and evil with the prize being survival more than a spiritual state of obedience. In doing so, Slayer laid the foundation both musically and topically for the future death metal genre, while also spurring speed metal on to greater intensity. Most of what we cover on this site would not have existed when it did without Slayer and contemporaries such as Bathory, Hellhammer and Sodom who opened the gates to this new style.

Witchfinder General – Death Penalty

November 29, 2014 –

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After Black Sabbath invented proto-metal, people mixed together hard rock like Led Zeppelin and came up with a new hybrid they called heavy metal, but it lacked the intensity of Black Sabbath. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) fused the energy of punk and garage rock back into the music to restore the alienated energy, and Witchfinder General numbered among its strongest arguments.

Bands making music of this nature face a challenge: the entire rock community is based on making things sound smooth and grandiose in the kind of narcissistic ecstasy that people who want to be the center of attention for their 15 minutes exhibit, and this clashes with the need to sound like a combat unit taking a break to bash out a few tunes. As the Witchfinder General Live ’83 release shows us, this band had great intensity when they could focus their energies in that fashion.

While Death Penalty features the same excellent songwriting, matching vocal melodies that evoke the ambition without regard for convention that made Ozzy Osbourne the favorite Black Sabbath vocalist, and powerful riffing that expanded beyond the rock vocabulary to the side door of speed metal, the more refined production convinced Witchfinder General to play these songs more slowly and to layer on additional lead guitar and production effects to “enhance” the sound. The result is that much of the energy dissipates into a 1970s rock filter, and the production emphasizes a thin guitar tone to which the band adapts. Other than this disadvantage, Death Penalty shows us Witchfinder General at their most powerful.

Like the best of NWOBHM bands, Witchfinder General used shorter riffs than Black Sabbath and focused more on melodic guitar composition that echoed the previous generation of British heavy guitar rock. In addition, the band injected fast rhythmic riffing using a muted strum, and fast lead fills that allowed more flexibility in riff placement, but also borrowed from many of the progressive bands a more flexible sense of song structure. There will be the verse-chorus cycle, but it often transitions with a break that emphasizes some aspect of the song and allows the band to use variants of riffs for great contrast, before returning to the original cycle. To death metal fans, it may seem tame, but in the day it was a revolution against heavy metal convention, and these songs still stand tall with a power that all those artists who wish to be more polished than pugnacious cannot capture.

Much of the focus of songwriting wraps around the vocals which guide each song ably by taking the high register and infusing just enough melody into these riffs to give each passage a hook. Sometimes this limits what the band could spend its energy on, as we can hear through many of the incidental guitar passages such as the fade-out instrumental break in “Death Penalty,” but it also helps hold together these sounds which are bursting with energy and musical creativity. Much of this album sounds like later Black Sabbath with more caffeinated leads, but that is its voice and not its essence, which is a flexible view of songwriting that never loses the need for a charge of the light brigade in power chords against the pleasant illusions of the average rock fan, then or now.

Updated version of The Heavy Metal FAQ published

September 10, 2014 –

slayer-2007

Version 2.0 of The Heavy Metal FAQ exists within grasp of your browser. This update and addition to the sprawling work that first began in the early 1990s when a group of die-hard metal fans began writing to each other on USENET, first published in full form in 1996, now contains information on the metal years after the turbulent 1990s.

Running over 100 pages of print in length, The Heavy Metal FAQ covers the origins, history, philosophy and artistic purpose of heavy metal and its many sub-genres including death metal, black metal, NWOBHM, thrash, grindcore, speed metal and proto-metal. Its new and more detailed chronicle of the rise and proliferation of heavy metal reveals the development of this genre and its many offshoots.

Written by a former death metal radio presenter and editor of this site, the document aims to address the common questions that readers and listeners have about heavy metal, and then to go one layer deeper so they can see the motivation behind these artists and the social and historical significance of heavy metal. Not for the faint of heart, much like metal itself, The Heavy Metal FAQ could be a gateway to a lifelong habit of heavy metal reading.

Happy 63rd birthday, Rob Halford

August 25, 2014 –

rob_halford

The legendary Judas Priest frontman (born 1951) is 63 years old today, August 25, 2014. Introduced to Judas Priest bassist Ian Hill by his sister, Halford became the vocalist for the group and quickly defined his iconic style of singing and found a way to adapt it to the new style.

With Stained Class, Halford adopted what became his trademark visual imagery, which is the leather and studs clothing that spread throughout metal after that time. He later expanded this imagery to include military gear, motorcycles, whips and chains.

Judas Priest defined much of 1970s heavy metal by taking its NWOBHM sound and adding the album-oriented stadium rock feel, giving the music greater accessibility, but simultaneously focusing on strong lead guitar and use of multiple riffs to create a puzzle-piece feel.

Without Halford, Priest might have accomplished this role but not in such an iconic sense or perhaps with such amazingly flexible vocals. Halford joins Ronnie James Dio, Ozzy Osbourne and Tom Arya among others in the category of legendary heavy metal vocalists. Happy Birthday!

Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls

August 16, 2014 –

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Judas Priest contributed much to the science of metal riffing. Where Black Sabbath strung together power chords into long phrases, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden re-introduced lead picking to this role as well with guitars that harmonized each other; Iron Maiden focused more on melody, where Judas Priest narrowed its exploration to the use of structure in riffs to get around the predictable patterns and rhythms still inherited from rock music. The band straddled the line between rock, hard rock and heavy metal.

Over the years, the band has unlike any other metal band explored any influences it could make meaningful. In the 1980s, Judas Priest explored electronic sounds and applied them to a type of hard rock/metal tinged with industrial and synthpop influences. In the early 1990s, the band took on Slayer and death metal with perhaps its highest musical point, Painkiller. Two decades later, the band both returns to its roots and attempts to find new directions for an artform which has lost sense of its urgency.

Redeemer of Souls begins with a pure hard rock track that shows off bluesy guitars and familiar rhythms and riff forms from 1970s-1980s radio hard rock. Perhaps the idea is to start the album slowly, or to have some track that can make it onto radio, but this track probably turned off most actual music fans because it is the metal equivalent of a cliché. After that, the band launches into more ambitious fare that quotes from the past styles of Judas Priest but tries to work in the rock appeal that marked its earliest albums. Hints of Ram it Down merge with a mainstay of pulsing rhythms from the Painkiller and Jugulator years slowed down to fit within the more sedate pacing of early Judas Priest.

Occasional citations can be heard to diverse metal bands including Metallica and at least one riff that sounds like later Iron Maiden. The band experiments with a number of variants on the theme citing mostly from rock favorites, such as the ballad and classic country, as well as working in a number of rock tropes in lead guitar and rhythm. Halford’s vocals take on a more restrained and sentimental approach. Tipton’s influence emerges through a style that fits classic Priest with a leaning toward the bluesy over the progressive or more metallic structured solos of the past. Where more intensive metal riffing emerges, it tends to lead not to an expansion on the same, but to a more vocal-centric and slower-paced take.

Redeemer of Souls like many later albums from groundbreaking bands revisits many successes of the past and mixes them in with known crowd pleasers, but seems focused more than Judas Priest in recent memory on fusing rock and metal to escape the sterile and eclectic but unfocused material of the jazz-lite fusion years of recent metal. While Redeemer of Souls has moments of power, its focus on breadth and variety leaves it feeling less like an album and more like a collection of singles, and experienced Priest fans may find it both approximates past releases too much and fails to leap to their level of intensity.

Judas Priest announce Redeemer of Souls

April 28, 2014 –

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Legendary heavy metal band Judas Priest have released their first new music following the departure of longtime guitarist K.K. Downing. Entitled “Redeemer of Souls,” it is the first single off the upcoming album of the same name. It reveals a band simultaneously keeping with modern expectations of heavy metal composition and production and staying loyal to their roots in the NWOBHM movement.

“Redeemer of Souls” will trigger mixed reactions. While it shows some updated sound, this track at least is standard heavy metal fare, avoiding the later attempts of the band to update their sound after the explosion of speed metal reshaped the metal landscape. In a statement, guitarist Glenn Tipton confirmed the conservative nature of the album:

Sometimes in the past we may have come under fire for being too adventurous musically – so we have listened…From start to finish, Redeemer of Souls is 13 songs of pure classic Priest metal.

Judas Priest achieved its universal acclaim for its development of heavy metal into a cogent, distinct art form. Later to become one of the two main pillars of speed metal’s foundation (along with punk), the band has maintained its central status as a metal icon for decades, despite perhaps a natural decline as the band goes into its fifth decade. Redeemer of Souls will be released in America on July 15th via Epic Records.

Satan “Life Sentence” tour 2014 kicks off in April

February 9, 2014 –

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Satan won 2013’s Best of the Year award from Death Metal Underground for its album Life Sentence which shows the best of NWOBHM merged into the powerful techniques of the speed metal the band inspired back in the day.

Now, for the first time, Satan is touring North America starting in April. You can catch this classic metal band (which shares personnel with Blitzkrieg) at several locations already announced for the east coast, with more to come.

If you enjoy metal anywhere from the late 1970s through late 1980s models of technical, inventive riffcraft bearing and emotionally complex metal, Satan Life Sentence provides an older and wiser take on that era with just as much invention and perhaps more intensity.

  • 4/11 – Black Bear Bar, Brooklyn NY
  • 4/12 – Katacombes, Montreal QC
  • 4/13 – Ralph’s Rock Diner, Worcester MA
  • 4/14 – Kung Fu Necktie, Philadelphia PA
  • 4/15 – Strange Matter, Richmond VA
  • 4/16 – The Metro Gallery, Baltimore MD

Happy 50th birthday, Jeff Hanneman

January 31, 2014 –

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Today, Jeff Hanneman would have been fifty years old. The man who helped invent the sound that underlies all of underground death metal did not, as the people around him in the LA suburbs tend to do, waste his life away in repetition. Instead, he forged his own path and we celebrate him for it and the results of it.

Way back in 1983, as now, the holy grail of alienated music was the fusion of any two of its genres: metal, punk and industrial. Specifically there was great interest in using its guitar-based genres to create a new sound. Many people attempted to fuse metal and punk, and many credible sounds came out of it. One path was speed metal, which Metallica unleashed with Kill ‘Em All. Another was thrash, which DRI cut loose with Dirty Rotten LP. But still another was the foundation of death metal and black metal which was introduced by Slayer and refined the following year by Bathory, Hellhammer and Sodom.

Slayer took two things from punk and injected them into the prog-influenced songs structures of NWOBHM: they borrowed the constant tremolo strum, used by punk for drone, and the open drum patterns that allowed guitar to take the lead. Now a new style of music emerged. Rhythm guitar became the lead instrument, rapid-firing changing riffs at the audience while drums framed but did not lead the development. Riffs did not have to perfectly fit the drums which kept going in the background as a kind of timekeeper but not, as in most bands, a way of signaling the guitar to change. Further, riffs became phrasal, building on the longer chord progressions of Black Sabbath to become fully small melodies, developing in response to on another like classical motifs.

Music teachers, who were raised in the rock/jazz idea that drums lead and riffs should emphasize harmonic and a static melodic role, with the primary melodic role and lead instrument (and thus impetus for song “development”) being the voice, found Slayer to be unmusical. The record industry was appalled at this creation that unleashed the demonic side of life in such clarity; they make their money from selling happy illusions, not grim realities translated into elaborately conceived mythologies.

And yet it is this mythological tendency, dating back to “War Pigs,” that saves metal from self-consuming and burning out like hardcore punk. It is not literal; it is imaginative. It turns our focus from ourselves to the nature of power, history, nature and other forces larger than the individual, and then lets us imagine the greatness of participation in those. Where punk turned reality into a protest weapon and source of alienation, metal has turned it into a source of individual desire to do something epic with our lives. Slayer gave that mythological tendency a new voice, not just by singing about demons, vampires and The Holocaust, but by translating the sound of raw power into something you could throw on your bedroom hi-fi and be transported to a different world.

For this reason, Slayer captured the imagination of a generation and continues to enthrall us today. The early albums, which are completely written in horror movie mythology, incite in us a desire to see the hidden possibly occult underpinnings of a society gone insane. The Reign in Blood and afterwards material shows us a more punk-like grasp of all that terrifies us and sends us searching for reasons why, and if not why, how to use such things as war, murder and sadism in some constructive way. Slayer is not protest music; it acknowledges the horror, but doesn’t want to band us together into a drum circle to “stop” these horrors. It recognizes they are eternal. Instead, like the religion it loathed, Slayer drives us to find a way to accept these things as part of life itself, and look for a philosophy that shows us a reason to survive despite all these horrors.

Jeff Hanneman’s influence pervades the Slayer story. He wrote many of the band’s most epic and enduring songs, contributed the mythological outlook, and invented the musical changes described above. While he may be slighted by the Grammy’s, or ignored by a world of people seeking Shakira tunes instead of imaginative but realist metal, to those who can understand his trip — already a naturally elite group — Hanneman’s work is not just a source of wisdom, but of inspiration. In a world asleep, he stayed awake. In a world of imitation, he took his own path. Where most just wanted to participate for reward, he took on life at its most basic level and triumphed. For that reason, we’ll always celebrate his life and work.


Chaos rampant,
An age of distrust.
Confrontations.
Impulsive sabbath.

On and on, south of heaven

Blitzkrieg – Back From Hell

November 11, 2013 –

blitzkrieg-back_from_hellBritish NWOBHM band Blitzkrieg have returned with a new album, entitled Back From Hell. Melodic while still retaining structure, this album will appeal to fans of 80s era heavy metal, as well as those who prefer death/black metal but can appreciate skillfully constructed metal whatever form it may take.

Back From Hell has the band mostly keeping true to the traditional NWOBHM sound, with a few elements of further-developed speed metal present. Songs are expertly arranged, with each track featuring a clearly developed concept that never loses focus. This allows immersion within the verse-chorus structure and quickly illuminates the theme present within each. Verse and chorus are linked together with skillful transitions that makes the distinction between them organic, rather than artificial. Ornaments such as solos and fills are executed tastefully, with an eye towards shaping them into the song rather than the reverse.

Tracks are a mixture between heavier material and those that have more in common with 90s radio hard-rock and seem placed solely for commercial exposure. On these tracks the band forgoes thematic development in favor of repetition. Fortunately, those are the exception and not the rule; and while they do interrupt the album’s narrative to an extent, are still competently conceived.

Exuberant and honest in a way rarely seen among contemporary metal releases, in its best moments Back From Hell transports the listener back to a time when heavy metal was still exciting, and for that reason will be present on many best-of lists for 2013, even if it is marred by some concessions.

Motörhead – Aftershock

October 22, 2013 –
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motorhead-aftershockMotörhead is like a kaleidoscope. Anytime you look in, you get a different vision, but it’s still clearly made of Motörhead, even if turned around a bit. The band is both distinctive and consistent in its unique style.

Aftershock is like any other Motörhead except that the kaleidoscope is particularly vibrant and more rounded and orderly than most visions. Clearly someone at the band or label had in mind a partner to 1991’s 1916, which for many marks the band at its most listenable.

Why is 1916 so lauded? Each song used its own techniques, rhythms and structures that were not shared wholesale with other songs. Songs were finished, showing a craftsman’s touch to a normally hasty art. Variety of pace and emotion broke up the record. The killer loud production didn’t hurt either.

Following along those lines, Aftershock is a bluesy hard-rock version of Motörhead with aggressive, catchy songs that at times resemble Motley Crue playing Motörhead. However, the album excels in quality control. All riffs are necessary, and while repeated a great deal, there is no unnecessary repetition and best of all, no unordered songs that sort of rambled off into the horizon.

It doesn’t have the pop appeal of 1916 which was a passionate and somewhat melancholy album that attracted people to its intensity, but even more, how easily grasped the songs were. They are not quite as distinctive on this album and fade more into the backdrop of what Motörhead has been doing for the past two decades. However, they’re also good summaries of the Motörhead sound from a slightly newer perspective.

One other thing of great interest is how guitar-based this album is. In rock-based music, the guitar is where most of the musical depth goes, since it’s hard to do it with vocals or drums. Here, the guitar leads the songs more than the bass or drums, which creates a surging feel and a constant background of energy. The solos and fills from the guitar flesh out the pattern and give depth to what otherwise might be too hard-charging to be anything but linear.

The point of Aftershock is to be a Motörhead album and to make a slightly updated and more powerful vision of what’s in the kaleidoscope. It succeeds brilliantly and while it isn’t as immediately distinctive as 1916, it adds a greater field of detail and appeals to the same audience, albeit more with pop form than pop sensibilities. Underneath all of that of course is the same raging engine that brought us this band in its glory days, amped up and ready to strike, with no thoughts of mercy at all.

    Tracklist:

  1. Heartbreaker
  2. Coup de Grace
  3. Lost Woman Blues
  4. End Of Time
  5. Do You Believe
  6. Death Machine
  7. Dust And Glass
  8. Going To Mexico
  9. Silence When You Speak To Me
  10. Crying Shame
  11. Queen Of The Damned
  12. Knife
  13. Keep Your Powder Dry
  14. Paralyzed