Diamond Head – Lightning To The Nations (1980)

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For all I’ve read about this Diamond Head and their… post-Lightning to the Nations career, I’m lead to believe they have literally no idea why anyone ever liked them in the first place. As a debut, this is really about as good as you can get – a fully realized work that influences millions of metalheads for decades, even if most of it is second hand through a couple humble ’80s bands who admittedly went onto greater commercial success. Far from existing in isolation, Diamond Head’s debut was but one of many salvos in the much ballyhoo’ed New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and it’s a pretty good indicator of what the scene brought to the other heavy metal scenes of the time.

Lightning To The Nations doesn’t have a whole lot that wasn’t already prototyped or even fully realized (read: Rainbow, Judas Priest, Motorhead) in years before, but it’s consistently faster and more embellished than many of its forebears. It’s not necessarily more aggressive – the production standards are one of the major weak points here. While everything’s reasonably clear and intelligible, Lightning To The Nations can’t keep up with contemporary advances in guitar distortion, drum reverb, and other stereotypical measurements of heaviness. While this is understandable due to this basically being a demo, it does mean that Diamond Head has to rely on their compositional advances to keep people listening.

Without the aforementioned effort, Diamond Head would never have reached even their initial level of successful influence. Luckily for them, Lightning To The Nations nails both compact and extended songwriting (at least on the original version – some pressings include extra tracks that are… iffy.). The means that keep these tracks working are pretty basic – high riff density, skilled use of dynamics to define song structures, and generally accomplished (if not particularly technical) musicianship from the entire band. It’s probably a blog cliche at this point to say that metal musicians have become far more ambitious than Diamond Head’s debut ever was in recent years, but the tracks here still work and provide valuable lessons on how to extend metal beyond its blues-inflected cradle without resorting to flashy gimmicks.

If Diamond Head had managed to properly iterate on the ideas here in their future instead of making whatever Canterbury was… well, that on its own would be no guarantee of financial success, but it might’ve helped 30 years down the road. Still, having your DNA splattered all over the decade counts for something… and Metallica’s worship doesn’t hurt, either.

Highlights: “The Prince”, “Am I Evil?”, “Helpless”

Devin Townsend – Terria (2001)

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I’m beginning to think Terria is the archetypal Devin Townsend album from which all future works spring forth; at the very least, all of his solo content (well, maybe not the “heavy” stuff like the Ziltoids or Deconstruction) can be compared to something on here at some level. With that in mind, it might be best to try and understand Terria in isolation, analyzing it as if it were my first exposure to the stereotypical Devin Townsend sound, but given that such is far from the case, that sounds intimidating and needlessly difficult. I can’t guarantee it’ll happen, but if I play my cards right, you should at least be able to understand the what and why of Terria

Terria walks a fine line between ambient acoustic pop and heavy “progressive” metal (those times that I wrote for DMU makes it hard for me to use “progressive” as anything other than a marketing term), using its lengthy duration to explore all the ways you could combine these ideas or keep them separate. We get a series of extended songs and reliably sedate pacing, with occasional excursions into more aggressive, driving content. The mixing and production unites all of the content here, which is understandable given Devin’s instantly recognizable style of composition. Ultimately, there’s a good deal of structural variety, but the long length and occasional extended compositional asides will make a deep delve into Terria‘s depths an intense undertaking.

It’s immediately ironic that I use that phrasing – as far as I’m concerned, Terria has a lot of filler, but its peaks are huge. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the more driving and up-tempo parts of this album that keep it in my collection. For instance, “Olives” and “Mountain” make for a very drawn out and contemplative introduction, but when the pay off is “Earth Day”, a 9.5 minute epic that encapsulates every style Devin has done right over his career, it’s easier to give even the less immediately gripping tracks a chance. One benefit of listening to this album in one go (as opposed to going the singles route with the highlights) is that it really nails the laid back, contemplative, possibly pot-hazed atmosphere it appears to be going for. Whether that’s something you want in your life is something you have to decide for yourself.

I’ve mentioned in the past that if I want to listen to Devin Townsend, I usually favor the heavier, more SYL flavored side of his discography. If that ever changes, though, there’s always Terria. Not to be confused with Terraria under any circumstances.

Highlights: “Earth Day”, “Canada”, “The Fluke”

Fates Warning – Awaken The Guardian (1986)

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While The Spectre Within was already a landmark release for both (often closely related) power and “progressive” metal enthusiasts, Awaken the Guardian pushes the formula for each further. In many cases, it trades in overall heaviness and aggression for extra songwriting and instrumental complexity. I’m certain it won’t be replacing its predecessor in your library, but that doesn’t mean it can’t find a place on its own merits, right? Awaken the Guardian shares a high level of critical praise with its illustrious predecessor, and for good reason.

Outside of swapping co-founder Victor Arduini for Frank Aresti (a guitarist who has performed on most of the band’s work since this album), Fates Warning retains the same lineup as on The Spectre Within and despite the overall aesthetic shift employs about the same musical techniques as before. The more complex arrangements give the non-Johns in the band more of a chance to show off their chops, though. The rhythm section seems to have improved their chops the most, driving songs with lots of offbeat percussion and time signature shifts, and coordinating more effectively with John Arch’s vocals, which are still album and band defining. Arch’s technique, at the very least, hasn’t changed much, but the improved prowess of the band definitely complements him nicely.

While the musicians lend this duology of albums their share of unity, Awaken the Guardian‘s tonal shift is enough of a contrast that it concealed this from me for many a mystic moon. As much as I should probably avoid hokey, vaguely mystical fantasy language when trying to discuss what’s going on under this album’s surface, every aspect of this album ratchets up said aesthetic. To be fair, the lyrics sometimes use the tropes in question not specifically to tell legendary tales, but instead to take pot shots at the ’80s culture surrounding the Fates (read: “Valley of the Dolls”). This is more of a contrast with Ray Alder’s incarnation of Fates Warning, which is beyond my knowledge but presumably takes a different approach. Anyways, judging exactly how well Fates Warning is realizing this aesthetic is kind of difficult, but the lyrical side of things holds up pretty well. Sometimes, the actual words get a bit stream of consciousness for my tastes, but the creative and colorful narratives and overall imagery still give them a respectably high place on the Walkyier scale, which I totally didn’t just make up now and is definitely a valid way of comparing the overall merits of metal lyricists, right?

Odd asides aside, when I like and value a metal album, I have this tendency to say it straight out at the beginning of the review. Those of you who have made it far have almost certainly made the purchase, whether it be 30 years or seconds ago.

Highlights: “The Sorceress”, “Guardian”, “Prelude to Ruin”

Alabama Thunderpussy – Open Fire (2007)

a0173502929_10.jpgAs a Massachusetts native, it is my sworn and solemn duty to denigrate the southern half of my country for whatever reason seems most amusing at the time. Take this band – they aren’t even from Alabama, but instead were apparently based out of the … less southern state of Virginia. Digressions aside, Open Fire still comes from a part of the country that’s considered acceptably Southern, and it shares enough DNA with country pop and rock music that it’s inevitably labelled “Southern metal” by writers worldwide. Who am I to resist that?

Open Fire is especially blues and rock inflected for its overall intensity levels, but surprisingly not in the immediate and obvious way that the subject of my last review is. After the 1970s, your average metal band stripped out enough of the obvious blue notes that without locking yourself in your room and blasting Black Sabbath for hours on end, it was potentially hard to understand why people were still drawing the connection. Alabama Thunderpussy is definitely bluesy, but instead of returning the method by which formative metal albums incorporated it, they’ve overlaid it onto a more modern take on the metal shtick. It’s hard to say whether this makes it sound more like an amplification of the past, or less, but one thing is for certain – this band owes its very life to the roots rockers, even if they’re aesthetically further away than most in a similar position.

Alabama Thunderpussy has a few aces up their sleeve that keep them in my listening rotation despite being surprisingly far off from my usual listening and composing fodder. The first is Kyle Thomas, of Exhorder fame. His ferocious performance on that band’s albums belies his abilities as a more conventional (read: rock-style) singer, and while he does summon forth the occasional scream, his cleans demonstrate a strength of tone and dynamics that help him stand out. I don’t know who provides the lyrics on Open Fire, but his performance strengthens what are already a well written, apocalyptic brimstone preacher set of words. My emphasis on the band’s vocal/lyrical prowess shouldn’t detract from the prowess of the rest of the band members, though – while the style they’re performing in doesn’t provide all that much room for musical innovation, the compositions here are both well performed and varied enough in structure that they remain interesting over the album’s 50 minutes.

I can no longer remember why I decided to give this band a shot in the first place, although I’d guess, in lieu of any evidence to the contrary, that I was following the vocalist. Either way, I’m glad I did.

Highlights: “The Cleansing”, “The Beggar”, “Open Fire”, “Brave the Rain”

Black Sabbath – Master of Reality (1971)

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One of heavy metal’s earliest classics begins with a dose of lyrical whiplash, at least until you think about it. Master of Reality‘s switch from marijuana devotional (“Sweet Leaf”) to Christian fire and brimstone (“After Forever”) may or may not be intentional, but the switch (featuring lyrics from Bill Ward instead of the album’s usual Geezer Butler) is one heck of a way to introduce an album. If it were all Black Sabbath had in their favor, this would be an unnecessarily shallow album. But there’s more to it. There’s always more to it.

Master of Reality is arguably Black Sabbath’s first ‘fully formed’ album. Some people award that title to Paranoid, and you could make a case for that, but this 3rd effort has enough advances in production and songwriting to shift my opinion in its favor. In general, this is a compact, blues-inflected take on the embryonic heavy metal genre. Even if Black Sabbath is using riffs and song structures that would be reused and built upon for decades to come, their musical roots remain strikingly obvious, although the infamous blues show up more in the instrumentation and general aesthetic than anywhere else. The tritones and repetition had to come from somewhere… which admittedly isn’t very specific. Still, it’s good historical methodology to remember that Black Sabbath’s evolution was inextricably tied to the musical scene around them, especially since they achieved major sales and fame very early on.

As far as I’m concerned, this album’s important advances come primarily from its songwriting, and its song structures in particular. I’m admittedly under-familiar with the band’s work prior to this, but there’s enough information that I can extrapolate from this album alone to say that even in 1971, Black Sabbath was beginning to seriously hone their songwriting. Even though they’d written some extended improv-oriented jams before, even Master of Reality‘s more conventional pop songs contain more unique sections and musical ideas than otherwise expected. The transitions between musical ideas are, however, somewhat iffy even at the best of times. If Sabotage indicates anything, it’s that Black Sabbath (like many bands) got better at building songs over time, although this often comes at the expense of the band’s original charms. Black Sabbath only had so much material in this vein, and even their good albums after this take a significantly different approach whether for reasons of novelty, or complete band replacement, or whatnot.

I suppose that in an alternate universe, I may have categorized Master of Reality as the final draft of Black Sabbath’s initial contributions to heavy metal music. There’s enough evidence for that position that you could debate exactly what role this album fulfills in the band’s discography for quite a while. Alternatively, you could just add Master of Reality to your collection. It’s historically important, but it’s also accomplished enough to hold up even today.

Highlights: “Children of the Grave”, “Lord of this World”, “Into the Void”

Orbital – In Sides (1996)

folder.jpgIf my insides looked like this, I’d probably be dead. Listening to In Sides, fortunately, is less of a disemboweling and dying of the guts than it is an accessible ’90s EDM album with some ambient leanings. If you like long form songwriting, minimalism, vocal textures, and sonic variety, you’ll probably find something to like here. The challenge in In Sides is, as far as I’m concerned, more of a writing/journalistic one – how coherent are these songs, especially in relation to each other? How does this fit in with the rest of the British mid-90s scene?

On to it, then – with no tracks below 6 minutes (and two that are chopped in half in such a way that listening to only one side of each doesn’t quite work), Orbital’s goals and potential pitfalls are very clear. The tracks here rely on repetition to build ambience, but Orbital needs to keep evolving and developing the ideas on each track throughout their duration. Failure to iterate is stagnation, and stagnation is essentially death. The good news is that Orbital excels at this. It’s immediately obvious that most of the tracks here swap out their synth patches constantly. Most of the musicians that manage to maintain their cohesion while doing this stick to a few tried and true song formulas, but Orbital goes beyond this – each track here matches its unique aesthetic with fresh forms. As a primarily instrumental band, Orbital doesn’t have the luxury of having obvious verses and choruses, so that’s likely responsible for some of the decisions here.

It’s also worth mentioning that In Sides manages to exercise its songwriting freedom with surprisingly basic building blocks. Years of underground metal reviews have admittedly desensitized me to this, but the level of expertise on display here makes this worth a mention. In Sides is consonant, melodic, and generally quite soothing (though “P.E.T.R.O.L”is a noticeable outlier), full of chord progressions that you’ve probably heard a million times before. Furthermore, the mix is generally spacious and not crammed to the gills with samples and sequences; it’s worth mentioning that Orbital’s ability to vary this up is part of why I emphasize their songwriting prowess. The formula here isn’t hard to imitate, at least on a broad level, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were hundreds, if not thousands of similar-sounding techno/EDM recordings that predate this one. It’s the execution that matters, and even if those previous recordings were well executed or even works of genius, their triumphs do not diminish this one.

Orbital’s success here is ultimately best described with an old cliche – it’s more difficult than you might expect to make truly memorable and moving music out of simple parts.

Highlights: “The Girl With The Sun In Her Head”, “The Box”, “Adnan’s”

Toxik – Think This (1989)

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If you like cookies, you’ll love Cookie Bread™!

Wow, who would’ve guessed? A late ’80s speed metal album that’s quite literally a product of its time! There’s a couple of reasons that Toxik comes off as especially topical. Apocalyptic, “mad world” flavored speed metal with nods to both the mainstream metal scene and high-culture virtuosity, sometimes even in the same song (“There Stood The Fence”). A time when middle America stood to be ripped apart by mad televangelists and communists… where have I heard this high concept rhetoric before? Oh.

When I first decided to give Toxik a shot, most of what I’d read about them compared them to other “technical” thrash metal bands like Realm and Helstar. On the surface, this is an apt comparison. Between the soaring vocals, the skilled instrumentation, and the slick production (although Realm is a bit more intense as a general rule), you can make a vaguely representative, if somewhat shallow trifecta of technical thrash. Continued listening makes the differences apparent. The bands I mentioned for comparison push the envelope of songwriting and musical experimentation much further – for want of a better description, Toxik’s “get played on MTV and tour a lot” aspirations are a lot less subtle.

That Toxik manages to successfully appeal to both sides of the fence (you know, the one that stood there) is praiseworthy, although it should definitely be distinguished from something like Averse Sefira‘s ability to mind-virus their far less accessible style of music. For the most part, Toxik’s songwriting sticks to common pop structures, but these are enhanced by a strong sense of dynamics and a good sense of how to play with tonality to manipulate the listener’s emotions. It’s a smart match for the manipulative powers of the media and society at large that Toxik criticizes in their lyrics, although I’m not sure how intentional that is. The obvious switches between dissonance and melody, as well as the tempo shifts give this album’s songs an excessive melodramatic effect that helps them cement in your memory. However, some listeners might find such excess to be excessively cheesy. I’m not sure there’s much of a way to tone this down without substantial stylistic changes, but I’m also not sure that it’s worth trying within this substyle at all!

It seems reasonably accurate to market Think This as an exaggeration of the excesses of American ’80s metal, which implies all of the good and bad of that era. This does naturally limit Toxik’s audience, but given the commercial (and occasionally vomitory) aspirations of the era, there’s a good chance you’ll at least be able to understand what Toxik is going for. Better this than a thousand other less incisive bands, no?

Highlights: “Greed”, “Spontaneous”, “Black and White”, “Machine Dream”