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February 10, 2010

Every month, The A.V. Club feels a brief tinge of regret for having spent all that time writing elegant, well-considered criticism of thoughtful, emotional music that brings love and hope to its listeners. That’s when Leonard Pierce—his ears ever attuned to the sounds of human suffering—shows up with an armload of the latest metal releases. Metal Box represents the cost of getting him out of the office so we don’t have to hear any more songs about bloody vomit. February is the shortest month of the year, but that doesn’t mean the box is empty: Here’s a look at some of the best in hard and loud from February 2010.

GET HIGH. It’d be an understatement to say that High On Fire’s Snakes For The Divine (E1) is merely one of the most anticipated metal releases in years. One of the few bands to keep its headbanger credibility while reaping lots of critical praise from mainstream music critics, High On Fire is in pretty rare air in terms of its reputation. Still, there comes a time when you have to stand and deliver, and Snakes For The Divine delivers like a UPS van on fire. It’s recognizably a progression from Matt Pike’s previous work—there’s nothing exactly shocking about it—but just the same, it has an edge that makes it clear that no ruts are being dug. It’s fiercer, sharper, and more aggressive than most listeners will expect, and while Jeff Matz and Des Kensel’s rhythm section is appropriately thunderous, Pike’s guitar playing and vocals have an extremely welcome snarling, nasty quality, expanding the band’s overall sound but not constituting a too-radical departure from its strengths. Greg Fidelman’s production might be a sour point for some; those who found his work on Slayer’s World Painted Blood and Metallica’s Death Magnetic to be all shimmer and surface aren’t likely to change their minds. But for those not bothered by his engineering work, Snakes For The Divine is the pinnacle of a career filled with high points.

OFF TO SEE THE WIZARD. Ozzy Osbourne doesn’t have a new record out, but as long as he keeps doing things, I’m going to keep writing about him, and I make no apologies for that. Anyway, his new autobiography, I Am Ozzy (Sphere), is a lot more entertaining than his last couple of solo albums. I’m not sure exactly how he wrote it, since he can’t read, but I’ve interviewed him a few times, and the book’s voice is distinctly his own. It’s exactly what you’d expect from one of metal’s most enduring characters: tragic (especially in his tales of years lost to drug abuse), honest (Ozzy is probably the only person on Earth who can talk shit about his wife Sharon), funny (he notes that if he’d truly realized the repercussions of bringing camera crews into his house 24/7 for The Osbournes, he’d have shot his balls off), and metal as fuck (he takes his songwriting a lot more seriously than people give him credit for). Speaking of solo albums, his next was supposed to be called Soul Sucka, but now it’s being reconsidered thanks to near-universal outcry from his fans, who clearly don’t want to walk around in T-shirts that might seem like they’re championing that horrible crazy rap music. Whatever it’s called, it’s likely to be released in advance of a rejuvenated Ozzfest this summer—once again planned as a traveling show, instead of the one-off Dallas megafest held in 2008. In that time, though, a ton of big tours from Mayhem to Carnage to Summer Slaughter have filled the Ozzfest void, leaving fans to wonder who exactly is going to play the thing. I don’t really care, myself, as long as Ozzy doesn’t do any more comedy skits.

ZOMBIELAND. I’ve always been a bigger fan of Rob Zombie’s work in theory than in practice. Both as a musician and a filmmaker, he strikes me as a guy who cares incredibly deeply about his craft, and puts a tremendous amount of energy into what he does—but what he does simply isn’t in my wheelhouse. His films are painstakingly made, but their subject matter and execution leave me cold; likewise, his records take an interesting approach, but their delivery is often diffuse and flat. That opinion isn’t entirely dispelled by his new album, Hellbilly Deluxe 2: Noble Jackals, Penny Dreadfuls And The Systematic Dehumanization Of Cool (Roadrunner); the Fiona-Apple-ish title aside, it still features the sampled bits of cult film dialogue, the choppy, groove-based riffing, and the love-it-or-leave it vocal delivery that makes it sound like Zombie just isn’t trying. However, there’s something that makes it worth listening to for me, and likely a must-own for fans: this is far and away the best band he’s ever worked with. Shedding the lockstep beats for some powerful drumwork by Tommy Clufetos, and letting John 5’s ever-improving guitar playing take the place of squealy synthesizers, Zombie is finally fronting a combo that sounds like a hard-ass metal band instead of a collection of cronies subservient to his vision. The song quality varies—for every knockout like “Jesus Frankenstein” and “What?”, there’s a retread like “Burn” or a dud like “Mars Needs Women.” The album, too, has a not-so-fresh feel, possibly due to the fact that it was some three years in the making. The ferocity of those moments when the band really comes together, though, is an indication that these songs will be absolute barn-burners live.

FEAR FACTOR. Speaking of sounding a tad dated, I had a bad feeling about Fear Factory’s return to the studio after four years of somewhat acrimonious inactivity. My, er, fears weren’t entirely unjustified. There’s a lyrical obsession with Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave, its credibility as a futurist manifesto is somewhat tarnished by dint of its being 25 years old, and the spoken-word bits and washes of spooky-ooky keyboards in “Fear Campaign” aren’t what I’m looking for out of this band. But all told, Mechanize (Candlelight) is a roaring comeback; while there are a few missteps, the album can stand alongside Fear Factory’s best work from the past. Burton Bell’s vocals are in fine fettle on songs like “Industrial Discipline,” a track which also showcases what an absolutely unstoppable drummer Gene Hoglan has become. Dino Cazares’ return to the guitar slot is welcome; he hasn’t sounded this good in years. It isn’t a perfect album from beginning to end, but Fear Factory never put out such albums in its prime—it released occasional blasts of devastating brilliance peppered with a few stabs in the dark, just like on Mechanize. Focus on the distracting bits, and you’ll miss some pretty amazing metal when everything clicks.

USE YOUR “SHINN.” Go look up all the reviews you can find of Blackjazz (The End), by the Norwegian weirdoes in Shining. I’ll wait here. When you come back, you can tell me how they seem evenly split between people who hate it and wonder what the fuck Jørgen Munkeby and his outfit are up to, and people who love it and say that whatever it is Shining is doing, it’s something entirely strange and new, and they want to hear more of it. Guess which camp I fall into? Blackjazz, in spite of the title—and the band’s past as an acoustic jazz combo, and its history of collaboration with the black-metal band Enslaved—is neither black metal nor jazz. There are elements of both on this extremely odd but undeniably compelling record; there are also hints of death-metal guitar solos, pop hooks, and huge washes of prog, especially in deranged freakouts like “Omen” and a giveaway cover of “21st Century Schizoid Man.” But throwing all these elements together results in that rarest of all birds in the metal world: something truly unique. Bits and pieces of Blackjazz have been heard before, in everything from Satyricon to Borbetomagus, but there’s nothing else entirely like the sum of its parts. Highly recommended to anyone who can get over the initial strangeness of the thing.

BABY’S IN BLACK. This month’s black-metal mailbag includes the new one from Austria’s Abigor, delightfully titled Time Is The Sulphur In The Veins Of The Saint (Season Of Mist). This one is a keeper, clocking in at two songs of 20 minutes each, a truly sophisticated, cruel exercise in progressive blackness. It has something to do with the usurpation of cause and effect by Satanic forces, but who cares? It’s pummeling, turn-on-a-dime Euro-black with elements of spazzy American math-prog that will surely satisfy even the jaded… From France comes Lightslaying Rituals, the full-length debut from Temple Of Baal. If there’s one ironclad rule in contemporary black metal, it’s that any band featuring members of Antaeus is worth listening to, and this one is no exception. Classic black-metal roar and fuzz, distinguished by Alastor’s blazing thrash-style guitars, makes this one a standout… Proving the point is Aosoth, another Antaeus spin-off, and, like Temple Of Baal, signed to the increasingly essential Polish label Agonia. Ashes Of Angels (all those A’s!) is more traditional black metal, meaning it has a searing, ugly sound comparable to what was happening in U.S. death metal in the ’90s, but what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in ferocity. Not the must-own that Temple Of Baal delivers, but a good addition to the library of contemporary black-metal purists.

I GOT THE POWER. “Where’s the power metal?”, you people are always asking me. Fine, here’s some power metal. Gamma Ray has a new one out, and To The Metal! (earMUSIC) is a fine illustration of what detractors of the genre hate about it—which, of course, is exactly the same as what fans of the genre love about it. For every balls-out screamer like “Rise,” there’s a dopey piece of wankery like “Empathy,” or a power ballad about the singer’s dead father, like “No Need To Cry.” I don’t need to hear any power ballads about someone’s dead father… Much more to my liking is Memorial Roots (AFM), the new album from Brainstorm. The group’s 2008 album, Downburst, was terrific, and this one builds on all the strengths of that release: Andy B. Franck’s low, rolling vocals, which render the delivery of his lyrics less silly than most European power bands, and the guitar playing of Torsten Ihlenfeld and Milan Loncaric, which give the songs a darker edge and some speed-metal influences that help them stand out from the dragons-and-chest-hair crowd. If the band keeps putting out records this good, I’ll have to stop confusing it with Brain Drill… There are about three dozen bands called Paradox, but this one is yet another German outfit that often gets lumped in with the European power-metal scene. It’s so good, though, that it seems like an insult to call them power metal; though Riot Squad shares a label with Brainstorm and features the occasional histrionic vocals and anthemic goofiness, it has slick production, killer solos, and riffs aplenty, plus it’s virtually wank-free. It’s really the product of a top-notch thrash-revival band whose members just happen to be operating in a power-metal milieu. It’s just their bad luck they were born in Würzburg.