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”
If 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”
It says much about my origins as a metalhead that the shrill, dissonant, and generally challenging Obscura was one of my ‘gateway’ albums. Either that, or I was a little too obsessed with the idea of “progressive” metal for my own good. Self-deprecation aside, Gorguts started out as a reasonably straight-ahead death metal band, but pushed so far beyond that on Obscura that they had to dial it back a little for this album’s successor in order to keep from going mad. Ultimately, it’s hard to describe the level of experimentation on display here without lapsing into marketspeak.
Probably the most important key to understanding Obscura is understanding that although it’s tonally dissonant and messes around with rhythm a lot, it’s still a rigorously structured recording that plays by an intelligible and decipherable set of rules. For instance, there’s not all that many unique song structures – over time, the album’s 12 tracks tend to sequence dissonance and consonance in the same order, mark off sections with dramatic tempo shifts, and hoarsen Luc Lemay’s grotesque shrieks over time. On the other hand, the freedom of tonality and rhythm means that despite relying on the same instruments and mixing techniques for its entire duration, Obscura‘s tracks are easy to distinguish from one another… although like a lot of albums, the iffier cuts are placed towards the middle and end.
Incidentally, for such a harsh exterior (even for a genre that is, after all, literally called “death metal”), this album’s tracks are defined by their hooks – usually one especially distinct riff or sound, often one of the moments of brief consonance and tonality I mentioned earlier. Gorguts does admittedly have one aesthetic ace up their sleeve in Luc Lemay’s viola parts, which definitely fit with the occasional contemporary classical feel these tracks have going for them. Otherwise, though, having the occasional crowd-pleasing big riff or whatnot is a good way to keep them interested for long enough that the subtler aspects of the music (like the overall organization of the songs) begin to reach them. That may be an overly cynical way of describing it, but in the band’s defense, I do feel that these brief moments of heightened accessibility arise organically in the arrangements. In other words – they don’t feel like they were shoved into the tracks in a misguided attempt to squeeze slightly more record sales out of a niche genre.
Making dissonant music is easy. Doing it in a coherent and logical fashion is obviously harder, but Gorguts mostly pulls it off well. I won’t go as far as to say that each of the twelve tracks on here is indispensable, and the generally challenging nature of this recording does make it difficult to listen to the entire thing in one go. But it’s still a high point of the genre, and a prospective metalhead can learn much about how to apply all the cool musical techniques they’re learning from how Obscura uses its own musical language.
Highlights: “Earthly Love”, “Nostalgia”, “Faceless Ones”
Nowadays probably known as “Xibalba Itzaes” in most regions due to the efforts of a recently formed and similarly named American band, this band was… most likely influenced by contemporary Norwegian black metal, at least on an instrumental technique and aesthetic level; they even wore the trademarked corpsepaint at times. Nothing new there; Xibalba’s selling gimmick is presumably their influence from Mexican (particularly Mayan) mythology. Toss out the folk interludes and locally sourced instrumentation and it might not be so obvious, but the band’s ability to incorporate this sort of thing without overwhelming the rest of their formula is certainly a sign of skill, and part of what drew me to listen to this one in the first place.
P.S: Part of it was also the title. My sense of humor, as I’ve said before, is so refined and classy that it drinks champagne out of a monocle.
Leaving such sophomoric humor aside, Ah Dzam Poop Ek‘s music arguably takes after Darkthrone and other sorts of trebly, blasty, but not particularly fast or violent black metal bands. In its more basic moments, that substyle often directly resembles an exaggeration of its own influences (’80s “first wave” black metal, earlier atmosphere oriented death metal), although Xibalba isn’t always that direct, since they are after all a generation further removed from that style. Outside of their folk traditions, Xibalba doesn’t add anything to the formula, but they importantly know how to write coherent black metal. There are some exceptions – the lead in track (“Furor Antiquus”) doesn’t really capture the band’s strengths; it comes off as undeveloped for having about the same density of ideas as the rest of the songs unnecessarily stretched out. There’s also the 9 minute potato chip munching interlude towards the end (“Bolontiku Vahom”), which might make you hungry not only for salty snacks, but also some variation – Xibalba doesn’t drone well, although to be fair, it is difficult to pull off well.
Ah Dzam Poop Ek‘s strengths and weaknesses are cloned from its influences, for better or worse. When Xibalba shows some restraint, they write strong, dynamic black metal with a good ear for melody and song structure. They even pull off some of the more subtle strengths of their idols at times, like vocal variance; that’s a sign of careful study. Unfortunately, Xibalba wasn’t able to follow up on this material with more at the time; they released a short split in 1996 and the tracks from that are usually stapled to the end of this album, but that’s about it until very recently. Still, this album is definitely a local/regional landmark, and it holds up well in comparison to the works of more famous circles.
Highlights: “In Daemones Imperium”, “Sac Ibteeloob Cab”, “Sign of Eastern War”
Long delayed reviews are always interesting to start, and The Nocturnal Silence is no exception. Necrophobic, at least in their early work, is a great example of the processes that lead to the existence of a unique Swedish black metal scene; one founding member (David Parland) even went on to found Dark Funeral, for whatever that’s worth. The Nocturnal Silence is too close to the ‘death metal’ end of the spectrum (even accounting for the simultaneous birth of the Gothenburg “melodeath” scene) to be counted amongst their numbers, but its early…ish grafting of melodic black metal tropes onto polished death metal songwriting is certainly worth a listen.
While the description and the title track (which I previewed first) served to draw me in, the actual melodies of The Nocturnal Silence were sparser than expected. In many cases, they’re monophobic with little in the way of harmonies to back them, which is admittedly quite standard for many varieties of death metal. Furthermore, this melodic approach doesn’t keep the band from exploring the more chromatic and dissonant material I usually associate with death metal. Most songs have a few sections of keyboard accompaniment or guitar leads to add extra breadth to the sound, but in general, I found Necrophobic alternates between both of these approaches. It makes sense on some level – you can’t exactly have and not have an accompaniment at the same time! In general, while this always counts as ‘melodic’ death metal, you won’t hear the constant harmonizing of some of this album’s successors.
Ultimately, the high points of The Nocturnal Silence seem to be built from restraint and cohesion, which isn’t exactly what I expect the more conventionally musical death metal to excel in, but it’s the card we’ve been dealt. On this album, Necrophobic excels at weaving the riffs written together into a cohesive whole and thusly matching their musical narrative to the lyrics being growled. The controlled application of melody allows them to effectively mix the multiple influences they had into a coherent whole, so there’s definitely a working formula on display here. Might be too coherent, though; the worst flaw of this album is that its second half feels derivative of the first. There aren’t really any major musical language changes throughout the album, so you could argue the weaker material got shoved to the back. I wouldn’t say this risk is innate to that kind of album, but it’s still unfortunate to see it here. Still, you get a strong collection of songs, and a blueprint for one of the more popular ways to expand death metal, so there has to be something of value here.
Highlights: “Awakening”, “Unholy Prophecies”, “The Nocturnal Silence”
I always seem to convince myself that Graveland is from Germany, as opposed to Poland. To be fair, the city Rob Darken comes from (Wrocław) is in a part of the country that historically had a major German presence before a few historical events intervened… but it’s probably because of the Germanic/Norse pagan themes Darken uses in much of his lyrics. I’m not very familiar with this band’s work, but Fire Chariot of Destruction showcases a sound apparently indebted to Bathory’s “viking metal” period. I’m willing to believe that, but even here Graveland pulls on about fifteen years of black metal to further shape its sound. Bathory has been this vicious in their day, and arguably that band’s frontman pushed towards epic songwriting in the peak of his powers, but this album has one major advantage over Bathory, and that is the wall of sound.
“Oh golly gee willikers! Another one of those albums. Haven’t we talked about the wall of sound enough?” you say in an alternate universe where you’re a total wuss, but in the answer in both that universe and our own is still no. One thing I don’t think I’ve explicitly mentioned about this approach is that it tends to favor ambiance and atmosphere over dynamic range, and Fire Chariot of Destruction is no exception. It relies primarily on riff changes and occasional bursts of choir to create variety within its songs, and the instances of such that are there are enough to give these songs a sense of motion, but intricacy of narrative doesn’t seem to be the intent here. Then again, it rarely is in the black parts of the metal spectrum.
Some of the ideas on this album remind me of bands like Summoning. Admittedly, Rob Darken’s compositions here don’t push as far into the drones as that band on that album, but in 2005 he had access to better recording and mixing techniques (although, to be fair, Summoning in the same era did as well) and intent to use them, if the cruder production on his formative early ’90s work is to be believed. Either way, the end result is that the strengths and weaknesses of these bands are generally similar. I find myself pretty well attuned to Fire Chariot of Destruction‘s overall aesthetic for reasons that I’ve explained on multiple occasions, and I like the formulas used to construct these songs in general. However, Darken rarely deviates from these formulas, which means that some of this album ends up kind of disposable. More instrumental variety might’ve been helpful, even in its most subtle forms, and more varied vocals beyond a simple growl/choir dichotomy could also do the trick, although vocals play more of a background role here. Still, those are minor piddles for something that fits my stylistic preferences.
Highlights: “War Wolf”, “Fire Chariot of Destruction”, “Prayer for my Ancestors”
You know, “Tornado of Souls” may very well be the best song Megadeth has ever written, at least if you judge it by my standards. It doesn’t repeat itself much, it has a good sense of dynamics, its sections are linked in a logical and coherent way, and so forth. Whatever. Megadeth always struck me as having an inexplicable, nebulous ‘cool’ factor that most of their contemporaries never got their hands on, at least in their classic era. They managed to keep it at least up to Youthanasia, which is an achievement given how far that album drifts from the band’s previous style. Maybe writing about it will help me understand my own opinions…
Now, I don’t know if the 1990 original version or the 2004 partial re-recording is more popular, but the 2004 version is what I’ve listened to. As you might expect for a major metal band recording in 2004, everything is crystal clear and appropriate, but that’s not saying much. I seem to remember reading of some peoples’ preference for the original version of Rust In Peace‘s vocals, but I really should emphasize that there’s not a major difference between these two versions. An album like this (i.e one that relies quite heavily on musical virtuosity) requires a clear production for maximum effect, so given the budget, it’s not really saying much.
After all, most of the good writing about Rust in Peace would revolve around the compositions, including the aforementioned “Tornado of Souls”. Before that, though, a listener has the opportunity to taste Megadeth’s compositional style; “Holy Wars” and “Hangar 18” actually suggest that “Tornado” might be a bit of an outlier. From a structural stance, these two aren’t really as fluid or as well developed, although they’re still fairly ambitious. Honestly, comparisons to Metallica are actually quite apt here; although Megadeth’s instrumental parts are way more complicated than anything Metallica ever attempted, they didn’t really have the same knack for extended compositions at most times. On the other hand, Rust in Peace has several shorter songs that rather excel, although part of it’s just their velocity; “Poison was the Cure” comes to mind. For not being Slayer levels of fast, Megadeth could deceive you for quite some time by virtue of the intricate shredding on display here. Now, this had always been part of the band’s repertoire, but (most likely due to the efforts of new guitarist Marty Friedman) it takes on new levels of intensity here; essentially making much of the guitar work here resemble traditional/early speed metal riffs sped up a few times. Given that a lot of classic thrash bands wrote their material in this fashion, I suppose it’s not saying much, but it’s still worth noting if you want to analyze things.
Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m any closer to decoding the “cool” of Megadeth, although there are a lot of musicological elements here that I didn’t think about before writing this feature. For whatever reason, Rust in Peace isn’t where this is at its strongest – I’d say the band’s 1986 sophomore album Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying? has more charisma… and in fact, I think I like that one more in general! On the other hand, it doesn’t have any peaks as high as “Tornado of Souls”, although it is a bit rougher and nastier at the best of times…
Some imaginary person, most likely overweight and inebriated is yelling at me to shut up and enjoy the music.
Highlights: “Take No Prisoners”, “Poison Was The Cure”, “Tornado of Souls” (“X-MEN, WELCOME! TO! DUH!”)