It’s turning out to be the hottest month on record, but that doesn’t bother metal fans: We already live in hell. Metal Box, The A.V. Club’s monthly look at all things heavy, loud, and disreputable in the world of music, is celebrating its one-year anniversary by saying thanks to all of you who have stuck with us since the beginning, and all of you who have joined us since then. With this column, we took a chance that there were enough metalheads out there to make it a success, and you haven’t let us down; it’s been a joy writing it, knowing that so many of the site’s readers are into metal, and that you’re as well-informed and passionate about it as fans of other kinds of music. So take a bow, look back at a fantastic year for the art of heavy, and stick with us as we continue to metal up the joint.
SCREAM FOR ME. Becoming a living legend renders you critic-proof. That’s good for a performer, but bad for those of us who make a living trying to make sense out of their work. Ozzy Osbourne has done enough in his lifetime to excuse any number of latter-day missteps; without him, this column and the genre of music it celebrates wouldn’t even exist. But the problem with the lifetime pass is that some people seem determined to test its limits. Ozzy hasn’t put out a truly great solo album since 1991’s No More Tears, or a very good one since 2001’s Down To Earth. And there was little reason to hope that his new one, Scream (Epic) would be much of an improvement. For the first time since the ’80s, Zakk Wylde is no longer wielding the axe for the Prince Of Darkness; he’s been replaced by the colorless Gus G. from Firewind. Add to that the controversy over the title and Ozzy’s ongoing vocal issues, and there was every reason to dread the new album.
Surprisingly, though, while it can’t stand alongside his best solo work (let alone his Black Sabbath years), it isn’t a bad effort from the elder statesman. It’s a tad incoherent, in the manner of a lot of older performers who try to offer something for everyone, and the worst of it—especially go-nowhere ballads like “Life Won’t Wait”—is pretty dire. But Gus G. specializes in the kind of gothic-metal industrial tone that characterized Ozzy’s last album, Black Rain, which yields some good results on “Let It Die” and “Draggin’ Me Down.” New drummer Tommy Clufetos does a fine job, and his ability to add rhythmic color somewhat compensates for the fact that Ozzy’s voice is processed all to hell. It isn’t a great record—the godfather of metal may not have another one in him—but it’s better than expected, and shows he’s still got a little fight in him.
MEDDLE MANIACS. How you respond to the latest Nachtmystium album, Addicts: Black Meddle Part II (Century Media), will depend largely on how much you liked the first installment of its divergence from American black metal. Because regardless of your reaction to the album—and I like it pretty well, myself—it isn’t recognizable as black metal, even though it comes from arguably the biggest black-metal band in America. On Assassins: Black Meddle Part I, Blake Judd and his cohorts took a sharp turn into prog metal, and the new album veers even further, into melodies that can trace a lineage from the new wave of British heavy metal into the Scandinavian gloom of Celtic frost, propelled by rhythms that are closer to European industrial metal than anything else. “No Funeral” is practically electro, while “Nightfall” and “Every Last Drop” recall a blackened version of ’90s-era high-desert buzz. The first track, “High On Hate,” and the title track are the only songs remotely recognizable as black metal, whether it’s of the European or American variety. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever; Nachtmystium should be allowed, and in fact encouraged, to become the kind of band it wants to be, and while Addicts lacks in heaviness compared to the group’s prior efforts, it’s also musically adventurous in a way that forgives how it strays from the trü-kult path. If you liked the way the band’s been headed, you’ll likely love Addicts; if you think its last good album was Instinct: Decay, you may want to give up at this point.
SPLITTING HEIRS. Balitmore deathgrind quartet The Misery Index has been on a hell of a roll lately, but with the release of its latest, Heirs To Thievery (Relapse), it takes one step forward and one step back. Bassist Jason Netherton, who takes his politics more seriously than most grind practitioners, aims his lyrical onslaught at American imperialism; those who agree with his ideas will probably find the songs righteous and forceful, while those who don’t—or just don’t care—will find them easy enough to ignore in the face of the band’s ever-increasing musical excellence. Simply put, The Misery Index has never sounded better: Sparky Voyles has really come into his own as lead guitarist, and he puts out maximum power in combination with Mark Kloeppel. Netherton is rightfully renowned for his political sermonizing, but he’s no slouch as a bassist, and in combination with outstanding drummer Adam Jarvis, he forms the grinding rhythm section that provides the band with its foundation. So what’s the problem? It can be expressed in two words: Kurt Ballou. The group’s last album, Traitors, went from very good to great largely because of the Converge guitarist’s production work; he had a particular feel for TMI’s sound that made it sound better than ever. Steve Wright does his best here, but the sound is muddled, and it lacks the ultra-sharp sonic edge and feel for the material that his predecessor brought to the job. Even terrible production wouldn’t mar the musical leaps forward, which combine the best of ’80s hardcore thrash with its contemporary deathgrind sound. But here’s hoping the band can get another like-minded producer for its next record.
READ A BOOK, HESHERS! Here at Metal Box, we do our best to drag you trailer-park Ratt enthusiasts into the wonderful world of literature. Unfortunately, the publishing industry doesn’t do much to cater to us metalheads, under the not entirely unfounded assumption that we can’t read. That’s why it was so gratifying when Every Röse Has Its Thörn: The Rock ‘N’ Roll Field Guide To Guys (Penguin) showed up in the mailbox. Written by Erin Bradley (who establishes her credentials right off the bat by confessing a love for power ballads and prison documentaries) and capably illustrated by her sister Heather, it’s a field guide to the rock ’n’ roll personality prototypes who litter the dating pool. You’ll run into everyone from Bad Company (who can be found hanging out at convenience stores, loading up on his shopping staples of “Newports, microwave breakfast burritos, and root beer barrels”) to The Boy With The Thorn In His Side (who expresses sadness by listening to cheery, upbeat music, “with the intention of making his misery that much starker”). Male metal fans will no doubt recognize themselves, only better, in these extremely cutting portraits. Female metal fans will turn to the guys conked out next to them on the ratty futon and say “I settled for this?” It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s snazzily designed, and best of all, whether you’re a man or a woman, it just might get you laid. How many books can say that?
SUPERVILLAIN TEAM-UP. The rumors are true: the Jonah Hex movie is a shambling wreck of a movie, so completely half-assed and incoherent that it reads like the movie version of a term paper whose author blew it off until the night before it was due. On the other hand, it has new music by Mastodon, so it can’t be a total loss, right? Well, sort of. Like the movie, the soundtrack—released as the Jonah Hex: Revenge Gets Ugly EP (Reprise)—suffers from having undergone a change in creative direction well into the completion of the project. Mastodon was originally meant to collaborate with composer John Powell; when he left, he took what Mastodon’s Brent Hinds described as some of the band’s best-ever work with him. Another composer, Marco Beltrami, was brought in to replace Powell, and the subsequent composition was kluged together with previously existing work and Beltrami’s new material. The final result has good ideas that fall well short in execution; even at its pitifully short length (four songs and two remixes), there are visible moments of brilliance peeking out, unable to emerge from a morass of confusion. Much more promising is the team-up of Isis and Melvins on a split 12” (Hydra Head); the top half features no new material, but the two alternate takes of songs from The Bride Screamed Murder are enjoyable. But Isis really excels on its two lengthy original compositions; since the band has called it quits, this is likely the last we’ll see of it, and it’s a fine way to go out.
FIVE THE HARD WAY. Let’s briefly run down some of the month’s minor-but-interesting releases in a number of metal subgenres. A few of you asked for a review of the new album from As I Lay Dying, The Powerless Rise (Metal Blade); it’s definitely a progression in terms of music (Nick Hipa and Phil Sgrosso form the best guitar tandem in metalcore) and production (the album sounds as tight and clean as everything it’s ever done), but in terms of songwriting, the band seems to be standing still. It’ll likely appeal to fans, but if AILD is looking to break out of the gated metalcore community, this isn’t the way to do it…
Much better is The Panic Broadcast (Nuclear Blast), the latest from veteran Swedish melodic death-metal outfit Soilwork; the return of guitarist Peter Wichers allows it to return to the ’90s glory of its strongest songwriting period, while retaining the progress it’s made in the meantime with its vocals and production…
If you’re dissatisfied with the direction Nachtmystium has taken American black metal, take a look at L.A.’s Lightning Swords Of Death. On The Extra Dimensional Wound (Metal Blade), the band delivers an awesome, blistering, dirty whirlwind of sound, harkening back to the glory days of late-’80s Scandinavian black metal. LSOD mixes in just enough textured thrash guitars to keep things interesting, and rewards those who have been following it for a while with a terrific full-length…
Bonded By Blood, the Pomona thrash revivalist group whose debut album was such a pleasant surprise in 2008, is back with Exiled To Earth (Earache), and it’s somewhere between solid follow-up and guilty pleasure; the neo-thrash sound is still spectacular, and guitarists Alex Lee and Juan Juarez sound better than ever, but the impenetrable science-fiction concept behind the lyrics is pretty goofy, and not as much fun as the band’s previous obsession with ’80s junk culture…
I’m not a huge fan of prog metal, but for the last decade, one of the most reliable bands working in that field has been Georgia’s Canvas Solaris, and its latest, Irradiance (Sensory), is another solid success. Getting ever deeper into the more psychedelic end of prog has been a wise decision for the band, and it’s managed to retain enough of the savage riffing of its early incarnation as a technical death-metal band to appeal to those who miss the harder side of things. Highly recommended.
HALFWAY HOME. Finally, every June or July, we rock-crit types are required by law to start putting together our lists of the year’s best music. I’ve talked about each of these albums in depth in previous installments of this column, so I’ll just list a Satanist’s dozen of metal records I’ve found particularly impressive so far: Sigh’s Scenes From Hell, Shining’s Blackjazz, High On Fire’s Snakes For The Divine, Temple Of Baal’s Lightslaying Rituals, Darkthrone’s Circle The Wagons, Aeternum’s Disciples Of The Unseen, Blood Of The Black Owl’s A Banishing Ritual, Howl’s Full Of Hell, The Abominable Iron Sloth’s The Id Will Overcome, Bison B.C.’s Dark Ages, Zoroaster’s Matador, and Lightning Swords Of Death’s The Extra Dimensional Wound. There’s probably a dozen more I’d put down as honorable mentions, but instead, I ask you, Metal Box readers: what did I miss? What are your favorite metal albums of the year so far?