Where Can We Go From Here – Three New Metal Albums By Three Veterans

High on Fire
De Vermis Mysteriis
E-1 Records

So the other day I got to reading this article about St. Anger by the (once?) almighty Metallica. Reading about this atrocity to rock history got me wanting to watch the amazing documentary about the making of said album Some Kind of Monster. I trust the five regular readers that I have here are well versed in said movie. But basically its like watching a corporation freak out because their profit-making product is having emotional problems and all these grown men sent to baby sit the egos of these megastars bullshit them and placate them into making one of the worst albums in rock history. And once again, watching that movie made me mad, because …And Justice For All was the first metal album I bought and looking back, it’s influence on heavy metal, both in the mainstream and in the underground is undeniable. Sure it’s mess of poor mixing and sounds soft compared to the super compressed, hotly mastered albums of today. But …And Justice For All changed metal forever. It was soon this epic type of music, with composition lengths that grew and grew. It wasn’t just an album, it was a story, an epic journey in music that beat on you relentlessly. I think about modern American Black Metal and the ridiculously long songs those boys put out and I can’t help but think they were dudes my age rocking Metallica at their finest moment.

It was not long after this that metal began to suddenly get soft. Looking for crossover audiences and more access to  the once record buying publics wallets, Megadeth released Youthanasia and  countdown to Extinction, Metallica gave us the “BLACK” album, and everyone else was just trying to catch up and stay relevant as Pearl Jam and Nirvana wiped the slate clean. It was during this time frame, with the help of things like Lollapalooza, the emergence of indie labels and the general back lash to hair bands that true heavy metal was unfortunately lumped with that essentially drove metal back into the underground. Death Metal became a bit of an oddity and anomaly for a while, and it is there we find the greatness of metal’s history during that time frame. But even those really pissed off dudes couldn’t maintain their audience, despite the genre’s diverse sounds in its leaders (which I would consider Napalm Death, Cannibal Corpse, Obituary, Death and Morbid Angel the front-runners) (we’ll be getting to Napalm Death in a minute too). Metal just wasn’t cool, nor a force to be reckoned with. Except for the true believers.

So here is the part where the blogger breaks the fourth wall to once again talk directly to his readers about his experiences. It is important that this be done so that you can uphold the authenticity with which I am about to make future statements. Writers do not strive enough for authenticity and what you to believe they are experts. That’s how they sell ads in magazines and on blogs. It’s how they get you coming back. But I go for the honesty punch. So here goes. In 1991, I discovered Black Flag and Minor Threat and it just made everything else I heard in metal sound wimpy. Now, I’m not saying that punk rock ultimately is a better genre then metal, or a more original one. But one can not deny the fury, original style, passion and genre creation of Black Flag and Minor Threat. So as metal was reconfiguring itself (in 1992 black metal’s roots would begin to emerge, something I caught a glimpse of on my visit to Norway and thought it mostly to be a joke, driving me further from metal’s arms) I was expanding my palate and exploring the local scene of Washington DC.

Others kept going forward and in that time have taken metal to new heights and making it more relevant and solid. But one of the reasons I bring up Black Flag and Minor Threat, who remain staples of punk rock today is because they were originators. They threw everything out and built something new on the rubble. So while any genre gets more fans and grows and has more bands, everything after the first wave just becomes a derivative. So what do we do with that?

These have been my questions over the last few weeks as some of metal’s biggest names have released new albums. From what it seems, people in the music world can’t stop talking about High on Fire’s De Vermis Mysteriis. It seems to me that if you want to break out of your genre’s ghetto and get attention by mainstream and hipster press, you should write a loosely based concept album. I don’t think that High on Fire did this because they were seeking a bigger audience. In fact I think the stoner rockers, filled with piss fire know what they are and strive instead to just get louder and faster and heavier with each new album. But the pundits and intellectual mafia seem to love a bit of concept album to deconstruct endlessly. The problem with this is that the music is always secondary, even when it’s fantastic. High on Fire is no Fucked Up in their concept. The crooked, half-baked story line about Jesus’s dead twin, quantum leaping and some HP Lovecraft sci-fi never gets in the way of High on Fire stomping on your face. The songs aren’t tailored to fit the narrative, they just stomp and speed over your idiot face.

And in the cannon of careers this is a high point for producer Kurt Ballou. This sounds like High on Fire live, which is what made me like this band. I’m only familiar with their last three albums at this point, but Kurt took himself out of his post-hardcore ears and produced a loud, ugly, heavy record. Which is what High on Fire deserves, because they are a band that just seems like they belong in the 70’s rather than the new century. Matt Pike’s dusted, rusty vocals are the shit, and it somehow dates High On Fire to a time they didn’t exist in. Perhaps they took the time machine back and forth to create the ultimate in evil.

So here we have exhibit A, where metal has now emerged once again out of its own evil hole and into the light of more mainstream or hipster populations. Never mind that the band is opening the Mayhem festival, an energy drink sponsored traveling circus of some of metal’s most popular, but ultimately weakest bands from the “MetalCore” genre that no one who actually cares about music listens to. This is an attempt at growing an audience, perhaps to capture the old ears of Slayer and Anthrax fans or to confuse the casual Motorhead listener who only knows “Ace of Spades”. Will High on Fire break on through truly, probably not. Even opening for Mastodon on their last touring cycle the band couldn’t really catch a break. They keep putting out amazing albums, doing with metal the things they love, but it’s all derived from history.

Napalm Death
Utilitarian
Century Media

Napalm Death should always be refereed to as NAPALM FUCKING DEATH. Since 1987, bassist Shane Embury has embodied one of metal’s ugliest genres, and can be seen as an innovator of the genre of grindcore. The early history of the band is complex and just where this sound emerged from and who was responsible is difficult to asses (even after reading Choosing Death), but it’s clear that Embury was their from the beginning and has held a consistent line up for over 20 years now. In the case of Napalm Death putting out new music in 2012, it’s not a matter of whether they are historically important, but if they can maintain their heaviness.

Now once again, I have something to admit. I haven’t been a big Napalm fan since Fear, Emptiness, Despair. I just stopped checking in with them. Further, while I love grindcore, not many bands do grindcore justice. One of the things that I love about Pig Destroyer for instance is that the production is LOUD AS FUCKING SHIT and I want to hurt things when I listen to them. Most grind is low-fi basement nonsense that makes it sound childlike. It is the former that Napalm Death did on this their 15th album since 1987 that makes it true to form.

Utilitarian puts most younger bands to shame. Frankly, if your kids are listening to bands with dudes with make-up and pressed hair and not Napalm Death, you should put them down. Because we as a society have lost. It’s sadly not the youngsters that are keeping grind alive, and Napalm Death proves this. Singer Mark Greenway just sounds so damn heavy in his own right that the rest of the band has to, and dutifully does, keep up with his sunken low, but spitfire delivered growls. Even when the band takes some left turns, such as saxophone track early on, it’s just a hijacking of a style and sound the band is credited with originating. They set the standard, which was breaking all the rules of metal in the first place. Even when it catches the listener off guard, and it does every time you hear it, it belongs.

Ultimately, Utilitarian sounds more authentic than just about anything else you are going to hear come from metal this year. Partly because it’s made by the innovators, but also because the innovators decided not to take a back seat and show the kids how it’s done. There is no reason to even entertain albums that aren’t up to these standards, set firmly by the godfathers of grind.

Municipal Waste
The Fatal Feast
Nuclear Blast

The genre of Thrash Metal was one that never seemed to get it’s due. Granted all of the big four (Anthrax, Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica) had their roots in a thrash sound, but it was only Anthrax that ever made a name for themselves. Others had decent careers, though most still went the Megadeth/Slayer route in terms of subject matter. Only D.R.I seemed to be having the fun that Anthrax did. In fact, they were having more fun then the boys from New York City. Perhaps it was the sun, ever-present in their lives n Texas and then California. But DRI was a band that just seemed like they were having a good time.

So why it took so long for a band that so clearly worships DRI to emerge is unfathomable. But in 2000 the world lucked out and got Municipal Waste and for the last 12 years this band of Richmond knuckleheads have given us horror movie rock closer to The Toxic Avenger then Friday the 13th. The appeal of this band can not, nor should it be denied. And while the nod to DRI is clearly in effect, Municipal Waste could be seen as part of the first wave of thrash, twenty-five years too late.

I’m in love with The Fatal Feast. And not because I think it’s the greatest metal album, greatest thrash album, or even one of the best albums of 2012 (though I am sure it will get a mention in the top 5 by years end). I love it because it does exactly what I want from Municipal Waste. It delivers fast songs, with awesome blast beats and double bass, Minor Threat speed riffs and Tony Forressta’s demented lyrics, delivered like a true Richmond punk. Lets not forget they got Tim Barry of Avail to throw down a verse on a song this time. That’s the kind of added spice Municipal Waste may need to rely on these days, but it’s a spice I love.

The Fatal Feast is a nod to b-movies, gross out humor, and drunken idiocy. Lyrically, Forestta is at the top of his game, clearly becoming a story-teller of the weird and wacky with a great sense of detail and sense of humor. And that’s hard as shit to do, to be funny, entertaining and EVERLASTING, but Foressta has the gift. It doesn’t hurt that his backing band is tight as fuck, “delivering the goods” as they do starting off in “Repossession” and lasting a blistering 39 minutes to the great “Residential Disaster”.

Part Slayer, Part Anthrax and Part John Waters, Municipal Waste may never be taken totally seriously by the doom and gloom metal public at large, but the fact that they are having fun is infectious, bringing others into the fold. The Waste is not about alienation, no matter how weird they actually are, but having a good time. And as such they have graduated from “The Art of Partying” into a more precise delivered arsenal of some of the best thrash music that has ever been recorded.

For these ears, it’s clear that Heavy Metal is for now solid in its place amongst the music world. The genre embodies a multiplex of sounds and styles, and the bands that have been around the longest seem to still be the owners of the genre. Rather then stepping into the concept of experimentation, the act of refining seems to be the order of the day. The band’s aren’t trying to shock people by pulling from external sources, but getting together and trying to get better, louder, heavier and faster. Each of these albums by these three hard-working bands are some of the tightest performances, with speeding tempos and big ol’ blast beats. The older these dudes get the harder they go, and that’s promising for metal. It’s been a genre of great progression, but what it needs most is solidity to remain viable. I think we’re all in good hands.

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