Judas Priest – Stained Class (1978)

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Stained Class is the culmination of an era of Judas Priest. After this, they were never quite the same. To understand this, you have to look into the pyschedelic/progressive rock roots of metal. Not only was there a great deal of crossover, but a lot of early “heavy” moments that future metal musicians were inspired by came from prog bands pushing into more noise and feedback alongside their poppier bretheren. I don’t think anyone would classify Judas Priest as a progressive rock band, but in their longer winded moments, you can imagine the resemblance. Stained Class has some of this, but its big achievement is buffing up the band’s heaviness and aggression to then unprecedented levels.

To be fair, “Exciter” (the first track) might give you an inaccurate impression of just how fast and aggressive Priest is going to be on this album – there is nothing that quite compares to it later on. Still, it would take the band years to match it, so it’s got to be worth a mention. Important, though, is that in spite of upping the velocity and aggression, “Exciter” has a relatively complicated structure, and plenty of internal dynamics that make its own lineage apparent.  This first track also gives us a chance to preview the latest iteration of the Judas Priest sound. While the production is still arguably a work in progress, it’s a good refinement of the strengths of the previous album’s sound. We also get a major boost in the quality of drumming courtesy of Les Binks, whose more intricate style is sorely missed on the band’s most famous works from the 1980s.

Even if most of the album isn’t as balls-out as the lead-in, the rest of Stained Class has plenty going for it. It tends towards a mid-paced, spacious sense of songwriting, with a few nods towards the folk/blues-rock elements that flavored Sin After Sin coexisting with more stereotypically metal work. K.K Downing doesn’t have as many songwriting credits on this album, for better or worse, although I’m still not entirely sure how much he helped Priest push the envelope on these early works. Quibbles about authorship aside, this is generally solid, well planned material; perhaps less ambitious structured than before, but also more coherent and less prone to filler. The improvements to the production don’t hurt, either. “Beyond the Realms of Death” stands out as another one of Priest’s strong ballads; its soft-loud dichotomy makes a nice contrast to “Dreamer Deciever” and its long buildup. Overall, it’s definitely streamlined, but the songwriting on Stained Class isn’t so oversimplified that it really harms the listening experience.

I won’t go as far as to say that Judas Priest does no wrong on this album, but Stained Class gets more than enough right. A word to the the psychedelic/proggy bands of today – if you want to get gradually heavier, you could learn from Priest’s evolution…

Highlights: “Exciter”, “White Heat, Red Hot”, “Invader”, “Beyond the Realms of Death”

Old Funeral – The Older Ones (1999)

89630History is a drug. How many forsaken souls do you know that will embrace an experience solely because of its historical roots? The Older Ones is a compilation of demos from an obscure death metal band whose main gimmick is that some of their members went on to be the infamous Norwegian black metal scene. Your interest in Old Funeral will most likely go through three stages – awe that its members went on to form Immortal, Burzum, and Hades, disappointment that none of those founding fathers were in the band at the same time, and then something based on your actual opinion of the music at hand. Yes, I know – I too was shocked when I realized other people made value judgements about music.

I’ve reviewed compilations of demos of this vintage before, so the frequent shifts in style on this album weren’t quite as shocking. There are a few trends in these demos that match what was going on at large in Norway – general deemphasis on production standards that initially were surprisingly good, a push towards minimalism in both writing and instrumental technique, and overall more coherent, if less ambitious ideas for songwriting. I won’t lie – the crazier, more unhinged early tracks on here are more to my tastes, even though there are some issues with how all the individual riffs are glued together. The better mixing is a big part of this – while they’re very, very echoy and cavernous recordings, the tone is entirely on point. Apparently, these demos were produced by the famous Pytten, who is responsible for many of the scene’s classics from this age.

Overall, I’m not entirely sure how much attention Old Funeral would’ve received without its star power, but if anything, the good results on the first half of the album should at least speak to the developing talent of the musicians. Given the… juvenile turn of this band’s very earliest recordings, this is probably where they came into their own. To be fair, these musicians were likely involved with the tape trading scene. Even if Abduction of Limbs most strongly resembles the death-thrash of 1990 and Devoured Carcass reeks of a thicker, more overtly “brutal” death metal, though, the bandmembers’ skill in writing individual riffs and ear for overall aesthetics are worth noting and studying. In spite of all this, the compositional problems mean that I would almost certainly recommend the bands that Old Funeral’s famous alumni started over these origin stories. The fact that I’m not particularly impressed with their take on black metal doesn’t help. Still, the recordings that make up The Older Ones are at least worth a historical look, with the caveat that you probably wouldn;’t be here if you weren’t trying to get your fix of ancient history…

Highlights: “Abduction of Limbs”, “Annoying Individual”, “Devoured Carcass”

Autechre – Chiastic Slide (1997)

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With a discography as sonically diverse as Autechre’s, you can easily find some forsaken soul to declare each recording an outlier. If you want to apply that to Chiastic Slide, then you should zero in on its ‘dirty’, heavily sample and noise driven soundscapes. Compared to the cleaner sounds of the albums before and after it, Chiastic Slide is a sonic anomaly for sure (even if the accompanying Envane EP shares its auditory patina), but the actual songwriting on here is roughly comparable, hitting a good midpoint between the nominally accessible Tri Repetae and nominally more difficult LP5. In the end, it got socketed into the discography, but not without a lot of spirited fan discussion about what role about what sort of role going full Chiastic Slide had in Autechre’s discography.

The funny thing about Chiastic Slide is that it actually isn’t all that chiastic – i.e there is not much on this album that is truly symmetrical. The song structures, for instance, tend more towards evolution than repetition. In fact, this album’s songs showcase some of the most striking and abrupt transitions of Autechre’s discography, at least in this relatively early stage. After all, it starts off with “Cipater”, which for all purposes fades in an entirely new song over its initial set of musical ideas. Some of the tracks admittedly develop more organically, but at the very least, beginning with the abrupt mood shifts and thunks is a major departure from before.

Autechre has never been a heavy band, at least by the standards of modern death metal, but the overall more abrasive, nastier sounds on here have in themselves been a major draw for me. As mentioned, “Cipater” has its thunks, and is followed up with straight up static noise (“Rettic Ac”). The more overtly sampled soundscapes here are suited to this; even if Autechre has done much with distorted and chopped up samples in their lifetime, it’s rare that they push the idea so far. This noisy aesthetic even leaks into the calmer and more soothing tracks – “Pule” in particular never reaches any explosive peaks, but its ever growing moans and creaks under the surface make for the sort of vivid synesthetic imagery that Autechre channels at their peak. In general, this sort of contrast makes for interesting tracks; I am definitely a fan.

In the end, I’m not sure if I would put the entirety of Chiastic Slide on a pedestal. The main problem is that some of the tracks in the middle drag on without much payoff. However, when this album excels, it reaches high peaks, and those should more than pay the cost of admission.

Highlights: “Cipater”, “Cichli”, “Pule”, “Nuane”

Necrophobic – Darkside (1997)

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Necrophobic’s debut (The Nocturnal Silence) has a melodic sense to it often reminiscent of contemporary black metal. Darkside accentuates that, but while much of this album resembles the black metal its lead guitarist David Parland slung on the side (read: early Dark Funeral), it’s still got at least one foot firmly planted in the death metal camp. It’s certainly a hybrid, and it’s also certainly a leaner, faster, more aggressive recording than its predecessor. A good analogy here is Slayer’s evolution from Hell Awaits to Reign in Blood – lifted band name aside, this sort of adjustment in sound is in itself not without precedent.

Much like what happened with Reign in Blood is, Darkside is therefore a simpler and exaggerated take on its predecessor’s ideas. To reiterate after years of lessons from black metal in particular – simple music is not innately bad. It can be if you don’t have the skills or motivation to make the most of your minimalism, but many primitive-sounding recordings have stuck in my mind for years, and even managed to reveal their hidden depths over time. Does Darkside do this? The answer is a firm “sort of” – at 37:55, the album has more bytes on its CD than I initially suspected, but there’s a good chunk of filler strewn throughout this relatively short length. This was actually a problem I noticed over time with The Nocturnal Silence, and it took me a while to figure out exactly why parts of both albums weren’t sticking after repeated listening.

With Necrophobic’s debut, I initially decided the main problem was that they weren’t going all out with the candy coated melodies. Amongst other things, Darkside is full of consonant, if stereotypically evil sounding melodic riffs, so it seems likely that the band thought similarly. It turns out that ratcheting up the sugar factor isn’t always the best answer, at least given the simpler song structures. This results in an album that lacks a lot of the nuance and intellectual power that made its predecessor’s high points work. It’d help if the production was similar, but as far as I’m concerned, The Nocturnal Silence dealt with this better as well. Its cleaner and deeper sounds sell it more effectively than this album’s more trebly yet muddled mix. I don’t actually know if Necrophobic was trying to go for a more overtly blackened sound; to be fair, it’s a relatively minor change.

Ultimately, if I want an album that blurs the line between the constellation of extreme metal subgenres, I would probably go with something other than Darkside. It seems like quite a step down from its predecessor.

Highlights: “Black Moon Rising”, “Bloodthirst”, “Nailing The Holy Out”

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Time (2015)

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If I understand correctly, this book has been making waves (gravitational waves?) in the sci-fi community. Regardless of whether or not that’s actually the case, Children of Time made it onto my reading list and found itself devoured pretty quickly; I was burping up papery sci-fi gas for a while after that. This book is a pretty good example of what happens when two stories collide – a grand terraforming project gone mad meets the last vestiges of the civilization that birthed it. That alone you could glean from the dust jacket, but it was more than enough to grab my attention.

I don’t know what your tolerance for spoilers are, but at the risk of revealing too much, read on beyond the line.

Read more…

Bathory – Under the Sign of the Black Mark (1987)

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Under the Sign of the Black Mark precedes Bathory’s turn towards “Viking” lyrical/musical themes, and arguably represents Quorthon’s first experiments with the sort of songwriting that would later define the band. It’s also a filthy mess of early black metal played at then-unprecedented velocities that, as far as I can tell, was created in at least two recording sessions. At the very least, it’s an interesting predecessor to Blood Fire Death. It’s definitely still part of Bathory’s long run of genre-defining albums, and for very good reasons.

If there ever was such a thing as a “1.5th wave” of black metal (and I seem to think there was), Under the Sign of the Black Mark is where it all began. In its faster and more intense moments, you could easily confuse some of these tracks for the works they would inspire, in their general minimalism and feral extremity. If it means anything, the average 21st century lo-fi trve kvlt black metal band seems to prefer a treble heavier mix and shriller vocals than Quorthon’s mere rasp, but that stereotype at least makes sense as an exaggeration of the techniques on display here.

Since fast, aggressive, and raw sounding black metal is a dime a dozen these days (and was already relatively common by 1987, even if the newfangled “death metal” was taking hold more rapidly), Under the Sign of the Black Mark earns most of its points in my book through its other half. Accompanying the blasts of violence are a couple of slower, more drawn out songs with better, cleaner production and the aforementioned first glimmers of the ‘epic’ styles of future Bathory albums. This is, as far as I’m concerned, a style that meshes very well with the black metal side of Bathory. Making these sort of extended songs is admittedly just a matter of adding extra content, but even at this phase of their career, the band already had a grasp of how to extend their songs. You could argue that they got better at it on later albums, but even something like “Call From The Grave” establishes a strong musical narrative throughout its duration. The focus and overall ambience building shows itself in all the tracks, even to some extent in the aggressive half, and that (amongst other things) is a sign of songwriting expertise.

Another talking point to take home from Invisible Blog – the most influential and successful of extreme metal bands went beyond mere skin bashing and frantic fretwork, even if their recordings still sounded raw. Bathory’s increased expertise on Under the Sign of the Black Mark brings them to my attention and renders this a potent recording.

Highlights: “Equimanthorn”, “Enter the Eternal Fire”, “13 Candles”

Overkill – The Years of Decay (1989)

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Overkill, despite being a typically thrashy thrash metal band, has always had a touch of the melodramatic in their music. It’s not all that uncommon, really, but understanding how it waxed and waned through their careers is helpful for analyzing their discography. My initial impression of The Years of Decay many years ago lead me to believe that it was on the decline in 1989 – that Overkill was trying to become more streetwise and generally focused on the aggressive, direct aspects of their music. Was that a reasonable appraisal?

Your first impression is probably going to depend on whether the first half (with shorter songs) or the second half (more extended songwriting) sticks out on your first listen. If it’s any consolation, Overkill had become proficient enough at this point in their career to create and differentiate both types of songs, so both chunks have a good chance of being your favorite. In my experience, the first half seems to win out with most people, but that might be because the straight up doom metal experimentation of a track like “Skullcrusher” is a bit niche compared to the more accessible punky thrash metal Overkill is known for. Divergent halves aside, The Years of Decay is generally more ambitious than its predecessors, with more technical instrumentation and more musical adventures in general, and that’s something I can always support.

While The Years of Decay predates Overkill’s ability to consistently get a good production, this side of their sound has nonetheless been refined. Some people might enjoy the rough sounds of this band’s earliest recordings, but this overall roughness and low fidelity is unfortunately not matched by special aggression or intensity. To be honest, this album’s mix doesn’t have much of a power advantage (power surge?) over its predecessors. However, it’s definitely clearer and more intelligible, which is a good fit for the increased musical expertise of this lineup compared to previous ones. I don’t know that the musicians are actually pulling anything out of the ordinary compared to before, even if their approach is more advanced. The exception is likely vocalist Bobby “Blitz” Ellsworth, who spent the decade gradually shifting from primarily sung vocals to primarly shouted and shrieked ones. He doesn’t abandon singing entirely (and never has), and he even manages to sound heartfelt and emotional on the title track, but it’s still worth mentioning.

Ultimately, Overkill’s 4th definitely fills a niche, even if it isn’t as immediately exciting as some of their recent, revivalish efforts. It’s still an important part of their career, and you should definitely add it to your collection if you want a good introduction to why Overkill got their fanbase in the first place.

Highlights: “Elimination”, “I Hate”, “Skullcrusher”