Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In Which Ihsahn Becomes My Favorite

While I've written a bit in the past about my love for Emperor, I really haven't said all I should, particularly when it comes to Ihsahn. After years of waiting, I finally got my chance to see Emperor on their reunion tour two years ago, an event that left me drooling at the mouth at the sheer awesomeness of the evening, despite its brevity.

Ihsahn impressed me that night by emanating the sort of evil that you see in creepy psychotics in psychological horror films; more Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter than the cartoonishly garish "evil" represented by black metal bands in corpse paint and spiky armor (although Ihsahn pulled that look off pretty well back in the day, too). It wasn't that I expected him to kill anyone, but more that he looked like someone who could offer intelligent discourse on the aspects of extreme individualism in Satanism and not sound like a douchebag when doing it. He had gravitas.

Anyway, not long after that he released Adversary, which was very good, and now he's just released angL, which defines new levels of awesome and makes me wonder why I thought I could ever write music in the first place (seriously, it's that good. Buy the album and listen to it while driving through some dark, snowy coniferous woods or something similar and discover new emotional depths in your soul. Maybe if enough of us do so, he'll come tour the album in the US and make my year). Today, Ihsahn reached new levels of awesomeness in my esteem.

About a month and a half ago, I had a dream where I hung out with Mike Portnoy, and I woke up wondering what we would have really talked about. Today, I watched the second part of a documentary done by two guys from MetalKult, who flew out to Norway and toured Ihsahn's studio while he explained the uses of each piece of gear. The charismatic front man with the on stage heart of black ice turned into the recording gear geek, talking about how he'd sequenced "Opus a Satana" in Cubase 2 hooked up to a Roland synthesizer because he wanted to learn how to use the equipment, or how the microphone he just bought is a special edition full of tubes they don't make any more. It was glorious, and now I know what we'd talk about if the two of us were ever to grab a beer: we'd geek out about studio equipment.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Mathias Nygård is the Finnish Dio

Afterwards, I felt a little bad for Ensiferum. Here they were, headlining one of the most consistently excellent shows (opener to closer) I've seen in a long time, and they weren't even close to the best thing I'd seen all night. They weren't dogging things, either, but after Tyr, Eluveitie, and Turisas all worked the crowd into a hopping, dancing, bashing frenzy for some three hours straight, the headliners needed something a little extra - something they didn't quite have - to really push their show over the top.

Not that I'm complaining: Ensiferum's "not quite good enough" still really rocked. But I think the band's problem stems from something they lack; something the other bands, especially Eluveitie and Turisas, had in spades (or maybe spade?): a really strong front man. Petri Lindroos started to get the idea by the end of the set, but either he lacks the charisma or the experience - which seems a little surprising for a guy who's been a professional musician for at least six years - to know how to get a room packed full of people to really move.

Mathias "Warlord" Nygård is another story. The Turisas founder/singer/producer/genius not only has the goods behind the mixing board, but on stage as well. I might mention that I bought the ticket for this folk metal festival specifically to see Turisas, so I had some high expectations; expectations that grew exponentially when I learned the band had decided to include "In The Court of Jarisleif" on their set list, as I was looking forward to celebrating the madness of drinking metal. Of course, they delivered - or I wouldn't be writing about them in such glowing terms - but none of them would have been met without Warlord's masterly approach. About halfway through the set - around when he divided the crowd in half to do some competitive singing - I realized who he reminded me ofy: the great Ronnie James Dio. Not in singing style, or singing ability, because the combination of the crappy BB King's acoustics and his own reticence made half of the singing inaudible, but in sheer showmanship ability: the man just knows how to run crowds. He mentioned at one point that Paganfest was their first US tour, but if they generated that kind of energy every night (and drew the same capacity crowds) I have no doubt they'll be back for more.

One final item of note: As a part of the frenetic pacing of "Jarisleif," I was looking forward to seeing this man rock the accordion solo, but he decided he was going to disappear into the wilds of Amsterdam a few months ago, so Turisas hired Netta Skog, who looks a lot like Elizabeth Röhm, as a stand in. She played the parts perfectly, so the hiring was a good choice, but either a.) she found the spectacle of a few hundred idiots hurling themselves into each other really funny, b.) she was having a really good time, or c.) someone told her you need to look happy on stage, because she had a big grin on under her warpaint the entire time. Looking happy while you're playing is so unmetal.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Retrofit: Throwdown - Venom & Tears

When writing my album descriptions, there are times when I have to listen to the CD a few extra times just to find something that makes the music unique enough to add a sellable spin to it. That's not to say that I don't like what I'm hearing - otherwise I would just take a pass - but I have a hard time coming up with something to say if I can't trick out an angle, particularly when I'm listening to (and trying to write about) something that's more than a little derivative.

Take Throwdown, a band out of southern California that finally achieved success (of the Billboard type, anyway) after more than a decade of music with Venom & Tears. I liked what I heard from these guys, but it was obvious after one listen that they'd taken everything they knew and loved about Pantera, Lamb of God, and (to a lesser extent) Machine Head, threw them into a blender, and poured the result into a CD master: Singer Dave Peters sounds like Phil Anselmo when he doesn't sound like Randy Blythe, the music is carbon copy of the traditional groove metal sound, etc. On the surface, it was a tough sell: How can you convince someone they want to buy this album without outright lying, sounding like a snake oil salesman, or omitting the striking lack of originality that made Throwdown seem like a groove version of Godsmack?

Maybe there was some self-delusion in the process (although I listened to the album again recently, some two months after writing the description, and I still like what I hear), but with enough digging, signs of creative thought began to appear. The intro to opening track "Holy Roller," for example, gets positively thrashy before it settles into a body-rocking groove, and when Peters actually sings like himself instead of like a Phil Anselmo clone, he's got a unique enough sound. However, the highlight of the album - and the one piece that really sold me on the idea that Throwdown has a future as something more than a cover band - is Cancer, a short, haunting instrumental that uses a very simple progression to convey the loneliness of dying by degrees in a hospital bed. Sure, it may bear more than passing resemblance to Fear Factory's Echo of My Scream, but it's progress. If Throwdown can build on that type of variety but continue to rock, I don't doubt that Venom & Tears will be but one part in a string of successes.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Alcohol, The Emo Kids, And Me

Much has been made (among my friends, at least) of how In Flames' latest record does an excellent job of pandering to the whiny teenager set, at the more maturity variety of subjects covered in their earlier material. I had the opportunity to write up an album description (as a part of the new gig) for A Sense of Purpose... (or is it Sense of Purpose? or maybe A Sense of Purpose without the ellipses that so clearly grace the cover?), so I had to struggle with the undeniable change in the band's style - and determine whether or not I liked what they were doing - before writing up the description. I ended up doing it, because I decided I liked the album enough to want to keep it and (more importantly) want to write positive things about it, for reasons that I won't go into here because they're outside the main point of this post:

Tuesday morning, following a particularly vicious combination of tequila, beer, no dinner and a three-hour period where I passed through what astrophysicists (when they develop the instruments sensitive enough to record what I experienced) will some day call a time/alcohol continuum, I woke up with a hangover. It was not the worst hangover I've ever had, but it was pretty ugly, and as I was stumbling around my kitchen looking for foods that would nourish me without making me sick, I had a moment of connection with one of A Sense of Purpose...'s more emo moments (from "The Mirror's Truth"): "I feel like shit/but at least I feel something."

Stuff of whiny 14-year-olds with LiveJournal blogs and chips on their shoulders it may be, but damn if it didn't ring a little true after my rock star morning-after.

Metal Thought for the Day

Running in the rain - particularly in a hard rain - seems like one of the more metal things you could do on a regular basis, particularly if you're listening to something appropriate ("The Long Distance Runner," for example, or anything fast and brutal). At least it does to me, but I look at running through the rain as being some sort of test of man versus nature, even though a.) I'm running through Brooklyn, one of the most controlled natural settings on the planet and b.) I'm running through rain and not something really hardcore like hail. In any case, throw in something metal as the soundtrack to the sound of pounding feet and all of the sudden I'm a mythical hero, locked in struggle against the titanic will of the gods.

You should note that I'm not a big fan of running in the first place, so anything that keeps me motivated - no matter how outlandish - is worth trying.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Ministry at The Fillmore NY / Irving Plaza

I didn't like Ministry's last album. I didn't dislike it either, and I still have the copy I got for the review I wrote, but The Last Sucker is no Psalm 69, or Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste, or Land of Rape and Honey (Al sure does cook up some great album titles, doesn't he?). For this reason alone I was a little disappointed when I saw the set list from Ministry's final tour: a disappointment written by the preponderance of Bush Trilogy song selections and then sealed by the news that openers Meshuggah would be playing a paltry 35 minutes because of an impingement in the drummer's shoulder.

That's the great thing about low expectations, though: they're so very easy to surpass. I'm pretty sure Meshuggah played 45 minutes, for example, treating us all to the unexpected delight of watching musicians head bang in synchronization to different time signatures: the singer in a half-time four, the guitarists in whatever weird compound time signature they were playing in. It's very impressive to see, but I figured out the band's secret: I happened to spend their set a few feet back from the venue's computer-equipped soundboard, and noticed that their engineer had inserted a digital plug in Dark Essence into the mix. In absence of further evidence, I will assume that Meshuggah uses Dark Essence to insert the proper amount of distilled digital evil into their music. Highlight of the set: finishing the night with a face-melting version of "Future Breed Machine" that inspired one drunk patron - a gentleman with a shaved head and a long camouflaged skirt (Army/Navy surplus, no doubt) who'd been boosting himself up onto the barrier separating the sound and video engineers from us mere mortals all during the set and screaming, "Fuck the mainstream!" - to start an impromptu pit with two young women who were otherwise happily engaged in not moshing. He missed, one of them fell, and the other kicked him in the ribs until someone else dragged him off. It was a good scene.

But I mentioned about a year ago that KMFDM / Pig in 2003 was one of the loudest shows I've ever been to. After seeing Ministry - incidentally the first industrial / industrial metal show I've seen since those far-off Boston days - I have a theory: when it comes to ear-splitting intensity, keyboards > guitars. Seeing Ministry live, with all volume knobs set to eleven, sound clips and weird synth sounds and pure noise pouring out of the keyboards, and buzzsaw guitar riffs cutting holes in the sonic atmosphere made even the new material sound very kick ass, and when the band pulled out the classic material for the encore, the show made the transition into Experience, melding hipsters, metalheads, and gearheads into one seething mass, all screaming "So what!" at the tops of their lungs, all moving at the behest of the guy up front with the black dreadlocks, Ozzy Osbourne sunglasses, and top hat.

After my friends and I skipped out before the second encore (replete with covers) ruined the evening, we passed other concert goers on the street speculating about the seriousness of the announcement of Ministry's purported demise. After that night, I don't think there's any question: if the goal is go out on a high note, this concert seals the deal. Ministry may be dead, but they sure as hell went out with a bang.