Tag: heavy metal

Children of Bodom – Hexed – music review

Children of Bodom – Hexed – music review

Children of Bodom played one of the most insane shows I’ve seen yet at Summit Music Hall on March 22 in Denver. Alexi Laiho came out seeming relaxed and positive as he took the stage and quickly ripped into his set. The good opening bands of Wolfheart and Swallow the Sun were both very accomplished esoteric metal from Finland who offered a great chance to see talented bands that are obscure in America but very musically accomplished. The audience was appreciative, but it was hard to anticipate what would come next as the headliners took the stage. From virtually the first note, the room went insane with energy and the entire crowd was one pushing mass. The show had the most beautiful and kinetic energy I’ve seen at a metal show yet. The whole audience was shoved around from all directions due to the circulating mosh pit behind me, but everyone was totally friendly. The audience just loved the band, but no one was safe. People looked out for each other pretty well, and the love for the band was overwhelming. 

Hanging on at the front, the only way anyone in the first two rows could stay up there was by holding onto the railing as people slammed in from behind all night. Crowd surfers were flying overhead in short order, and the continual dance of metal horns in the air was unrelenting. Alexi seemed genuinely appreciative, and it was a happy but intense pure metal show from Children of Bodom. Everyone was nice and was letting other people know they weren’t trying to push but that the whole crowd was moving. The people who went into the pit at the middle said it was friendly but incredibly busy, and the band responded with surprise and delight as they played even more intensely and paused frequently between songs to thank people for being so serious about the show. Then they would erupt into still more thunder. Music has a beautiful ability to create its own world and to leave normal perception behind, and for a band that writes occult themed songs with some regularity, the sheer energy and odd movement of the audience was as close to supernatural as it can get. I got insane looks and compliments when I took out my camera for a couple of brief minute long gaps when no crowd surfers were on my head and when the continual chaos seemed stable enough with who was leveraged around me to actually be able to hold my camera and grab a few shots of Alexi.

Children of Bodom

It was definitely a night for pure metal appreciation, and a lot of people who like obscure extreme metal showed up, especially fans of metal from the Nordic countries. Children of Bodom are supporting their new album Hexed, and it is a more complex and layered album than the last. Where I Worship Chaos was a successful and fast death metal album, Hexed has brought out the melody Alexi is capable of on his guitar much more, with whirling and twisting sounds capturing a vision of chaos that seems true and beautiful. Some of the spinning and whirling sounds with intense rhythm are hard to achieve and offer a strong songwriting showcase to go along with the great technical playing the band is known for. Both are very good albums, but the previous one seemed a little more in the direction of accessibility, as though the band summed up it’s long history with somewhat direct songs, while Hexed is esoteric to its core and should appeal to hardcore fans of the band. It is likely closer to capturing Alexi’s vision as it takes the twisted sound that has been around in Children of Bodom albums for some time and amplifies that to beautiful and strange sonic contortions. The addition of a new second guitarist helps to create this as the two instruments play next to each other in beautiful twisting sets of melodies, with of course Alexi’s melodic sweeping attacks holding the lead.

The set was filled with a few of the new songs and several classics, including songs from Alexi’s favorite Hate Crew Deathroll, a nice way to tie their past to the band’s present after a little more than 20 years. Much of the beauty of the performance though was the way the choice of classic COB songs amplified the lovely twisted sounds of Hexed. It is clearly using motifs that have always been part of the band’s repertoire, but it places heavy emphasis on those musical passages of odd contorting instruments that become something like a chaotic surface from which Alexi’s guitar is able to soar, rising above with melody alongside the keyboard and then crashing back down into the pit of chaos the rhythm section is driving for him.  Much of the attraction to Children of Bodom is in the way that they are able to balance aggression with extravagant beauty. Alexi is one of the world’s best guitarists, and he conjures sounds from his instrument with beautiful melody and sometimes classical sensibility while his tempo can reach insane speeds that push metal hard but don’t lose the amazing variation in his sounds. It is hard to find a guitarist who grinds out such a fierce attack with beautiful melody and artful tonal variations in the instrument. The result is a powerful dance of beauty and chaos, something that seems to capture the heart of what heavy metal is capable of.

Children of Bodom

The keyboard is inspiring and worthy of the prominence symphonic metal bands give to the instrument in contrast to the rarity of seeing it in a melodic death metal band like this, but it especially serves as a backdrop to Alexi’s guitar, like glimmers of light happening as the venue erupts. So the result is a very balanced and aggressive sound that is kinetic the way only death metal can be. The Hexed album is a worthy successor to the intense I Worship Chaos. Both albums are pure melodic death metal, but like many great bands, this is really just a slight adjustment of emphasis out of the palette of sounds and styles they’ve always used. The whole album is strong and has the bizarre twisted sound throughout as the two guitars play against each other, and circular beats pour out of the drums, but Under Grass and Clover and Hecate’s Nightmare are personal favorites. The former got played at the Summit, and the audience went insane, but there was also great love shown for the band’s earlier songs that were in the setlist. The new album opens with another very good song that has been a single and was also played that night, This Road. Compared with earlier albums, the lyrics are a bit clearer in intent, and Alexi has a lot to say besides yelling alongside his guitar. He captures a very confused world of angst and struggle that is in discord with seeking out harmony in one’s life. He sings, “Faceless, dreary soul, like a bottomless black hole. Your future is bleak. My past is unknown. Don’t leave me behind. Just leave me alone.” It is a somewhat remarkable portrayal of a fractured and twisted world that fits the guitar chaos with its search for beauty in melody very well. The prominent twisting sound is also found on earlier albums, but it’s clarified here and seems to have a real trajectory.

Alexi is one of the best guitarists in the world. This comes through impressively enough on every Children of Bodom album, but in person and live the experience is far more powerful and ecstatic, and this show was even better than the one they played at the same venue two years before. His solos demonstrate beauty even while the audience is insanely being shoved all over the venue. The second guitarist gives consistency to the songs while Alexi can fly off in wild directions and truly capture chaos in sound. Heavy metal is a powerful and broad genre with seemingly endless sub-types, but Children of Bodom is among the most artistic and the best of that. They unify the insane aggression of death metal with beautiful melodies, and while melodic death metal has many great purveyors, this is as excellent as it gets. The lyrics are very focused on an ecstatic release of burdens that matches Alexi’s guitar compositions, as though we should take from death metal the need to love every second of life by breaking all convention given the short time we are here, a true insight to be taken from death metal. The album’s title track of Hexed is a song of wonder about bad circumstances. Alexi tells us, “If spirits could be visible, not just a fallacy, your hex would be tangible, but in reality, they haunt me, taunt me.” It shows someone looking for a glimpse beyond the veil of bad fortune in search for explanation. What we can’t explain though is certainly filled in beautifully by Alexi’s guitar.

Children of Bodom

Occultism is a clear touching point for the band as songs like Hecate’s Nightmare also demonstrate, but it mostly stays at the level of music being a medium to break normal perception. Sound does have its own energy and spirit, and this becomes a mechanism for occult interests in a lot of musical works. With Children of Bodom, the power of using this as a reference comes from being able to successfully create bizarre chaotic sounds that break normal experience while at the same time showing beauty to what the music offers as an alternative to normality. By focusing on internal awareness also, the question of who we are and what we live for, the band is able to show different inner dimensions of ourselves than most people are aware of, and that is one of the better and more legitimate occult ideas, odd perceptions making sense when given the right context. What Children of Bodom seem to like about those themes is the rupture from normality, darkness, and sense of mystery. They favor eerie sounds, and haunted things capture that well as an image. It’s worth noting here that horror movies figure prominently as influences for a number of dark bands, but while there are great films among those works from the likes of George Romero, John Carpenter, and Dario Argento, most horror movies are typically not great works of art. Children of Bodom though manage to capture the best parts of that spirit, the sense of the forbidden, the disturbing, and the weird that a genius like Franz Kafka would enjoy in horror. So we are fortunate to get only the best of those ideas throughout their albums, but even more so on their best albums, and Hexed is definitely one of them.

This band is about dark creation and overcoming barriers through music and art. Their work is meant to challenge our awareness and use chaos to break free of standard things we take for granted, holding some similarity to the great industrial band Psyclon Nine with that. When Alexi’s guitar grinds out one of those strange soaring melodies, it’s an assault on the listener’s normal way of thinking. It’s meant to get inside and make us someone else, to capture the fire that comes with creative inspiration. They were named after the lake they live by, which was the site of infamous murders. Before people take that the wrong way though, the band is not advocating violence at all. The lake figures into their music more as a place that is haunted by its past. That could mean occult haunting in a literal sense, or it could mean a past that is broken and needs some recognition and adjustments like so much of what we continually live around. The songs often show complaints about life being broken, and Lake Bodom is a fitting image for the tragic frustration of that. In any case, the band is chaotic but is searching for love and connection as the beautiful melodies show. Lake Bodom with its tragic past is basically a weird place that challenges a person to make sense of it, and that is in tune with Alexi’s vision of all of us dancing over hell but looking for something much better. 

Children of Bodom
Behemoth – I Loved You at Your Darkest – music review

Behemoth – I Loved You at Your Darkest – music review

Behemoth is a great and strange band. They take some of heavy metal’s darkest and deepest impulses and shape them into glorious clarity that remains essential rock and roll throughout. Their masterpiece The Satanist gives expression to something that has been important to black metal since it started in Norway and that has roots in earlier death metal like Morbid Angel and still earlier metal all the way back to Black Sabbath. The followup to those ideas in I Loved You at Your Darkest continues this brilliantly with a broader soundscape. Satanism is an eternal topic for metal, and it takes a lot of guises. Some of them are performance art, some just silly self references for rock and roll fun, some more a part of rebellion, and some are occultist. It doesn’t really matter which form it takes though, because it’s become such a part of metal that the idea of Satan is part of a creative palette that’s very important to being subversive in music. Behemoth have managed to take that entire collection of themes and distill it into a clear and pure vision of Satanic life as a rebellion against god and injustice, and they have turned it into pure and great rock and roll.

I Loved You at Your Darkest expands the range of those considerations where The Satanist seemed like a distillation of those ideas into heavy clarity. Behemoth’s new album is like an atmospheric whirlwind. Where The Satanist brought clarity to their sound with a remarkably accessible, subversive, and pure black metal sound, the newest album offers strange thick sounds and sludgy atmosphere that sounds like Nergal’s band wandered into hell where they are on holiday with martinis and north European beer. It’s a much weirder album that might be a celebration of their success, but it’s just as fun and enlightening as the one before it. Part of the importance of Behemoth’s achievements has to do with the status of heavy metal today. It underwent a real crisis more than 20 years ago when it was out of favor, during which time it went underground. Sub-genres of metal developed well out of that underground status, and it allowed for much more creativity to take hold. Today metal is not only strong but is one of the purest, most creative and subversive styles of music. The love for metal brings people together and builds a unique culture with a true way of life and fierce approach to creation, and Behemoth embodies that in such a full way that it’s hard to believe what you are seeing when they play.

For the Love of Satan

Nergal, aka Adam Darski, has an odd way of being incredibly articulate about his advocacy of Satan, and what makes it so interesting is that his status as a spokesperson is almost as important as his work as a musician, and that’s saying a lot, because Behemoth is undeniably the most important black metal band. So we have excellent musicianship alongside clear thinking and solid inspiration with a provocative message. When the drums and the bass attack with a brutal backing rhythm, it seems like a chasm is being ripped open under the earth to let the guitar shred its way to some new light that Nergal’s lyrics will somehow accompany. It’s a brilliant guise for a band to take on, and it never becomes repetitive. The divine blasphemy sets us up for enlightenment, and Nergal’s Satanic message is that we should free our minds. He really is an intellectual as much as a musician, and given the creative impetus of art and music, that takes a different form than scholarly academia, but it is highly intelligent and shows a worldview that is confronting deep aspects of western culture in a critical way that goes beyond great albums into perhaps the most solid rock and roll shows available now. 

Behemoth
Behemoth at Ogden Theatre in Denver, 11/13/18

Behemoth have taken the idea of Satanic themes and perfected them in their sounds, imagery, lyrics, and persona. Far from being negative, they find light and positivity in the idea. Nergal is an inspiring person. He survived a devastating form of cancer and is a health guru who tries to inspire other people. The band has decided that there is a dark occult landscape that is part of creative arts to be found in metal’s idea of Satan, and they have tried to perfect that better than anyone else ever has. They’ve succeeded. The band’s Satanism is authentic and well intentioned as a rejection of corrupt power, dogmatism, and lies. To much of heavy metal, Satan is the ultimate rebel, the denier of illusions and a representation of freedom.

Satanism is also wrapped up in creative arts beyond music. The Church of Satan and related organizations have cast a long shadow in Hollywood with film stars and musicians being associated with it, and it’s generally turned into a larger creative place. There are various subgroups and related groups, and not everyone is as positive, but generally it’s more a part of the creative world than the mass media has tended to suggest. Lots of Satanists want to see a better world by getting past things that hold people back. Some have occult views, and some are simply individualists. Some are problematic on occasion, but it’s fair to blame this more on bad individuals and a proliferation of subgroups than the general idea. Interpretations and intentions behind Satanism really vary, but the genius of Behemoth is that they have taken that whole landscape and shaped it into a perfect musical form that really completes the idea. They also stay with pure rock and roll and musical art without resorting to some of the extreme theatricality that some black metal has needed to use.

Their stage show is beautiful, but it stays basic enough to emphasize their prowess with instruments and raw rock performance. Playing at the Ogden in Denver for November of last year, the lights went into beautiful extreme shades of red and darkness that capture the idea well, and the restrained choices keep the band from being so over the top or conceptual as to lose the beauty of what their sounds are capable of. Nergal is one of the best singers in rock. He is able to amplify the sections of his lyrics in just the right places and can send the audience into a frenzy with little effort. He doesn’t jump around the stage like Alissa White-Gluz (who has an amazing talent for that), but standing with his guitar he has a stable majesty to his presence that is irreplaceable and fits the insane heaviness of the band’s compositions. Being at eye level with him for much of the show, he seemed like a friendly heavy metal warrior with a lot to say. Everyone in Behemoth plays like a tightly knit unit in perfect time with each other, and there is a deep sense of inspiration being at work with the band. They are accompanied by an altar with snakes, and it’s basic and beautiful, representing the infernal illumination that is part of Behemoth’s musical vision.

Occult

The occult background of the kind of ideas that are found in Behemoth is best seen in Aleister Crowley. He has been an important influence on rock for a long time. An advocate of occult mysticism, love, and personal freedom, Crowley’s ideas have been shaped into a way of life that is an intrinsic part of music. While he advocates magic, plenty of his ideas have obvious mundane importance to people in clubs. He was a serious advocate of creativity and doing things for oneself. It’s hard to be very creative by accepting what everyone already says, and Crowley uses mysticism to reach beyond that. While he turns that into a new occult movement and claims magical revelation in The Book of the Law and other works, mysticism has great similarities to his ideas and is found throughout mainstream religions all over the world, generally as a quieter, smaller, and more personal trend than public outer aspects of religion. Crowley is also a strong advocate of love, and one of his most central formulations of his ideas was stated as, “Love is the law. Love under will.” Put simply, one should pursue one’s passions and one’s love and apply the will to this, a statement of individualism which took off in various views of Satanism proclaiming that a person should be their own god, strive to accomplish, and take control of their own existence.

Behemoth

Black metal started in Norway with inspiration in death metal, occultism, and the rejection of popular religion in favor of something more primal and in some cases something viewed as an earlier set of pagan beliefs. That artistic movement spread throughout Europe, and Behemoth is from Poland, which has an active dark metal scene. It’s not the biggest dark metal scene in Europe even though the country is geographically enormous by European standards, and Behemoth became established as a top international band from drawing influences for their sounds from all over the place as they toured. Part of what makes them a great band is that they are so self made. All those grueling years of hard touring at first on very little budget taught them a lot, and they continued to grow, learn, and get better. Heavy metal has strong ideas about fighting on and overcoming obstacles, and living that life to the fullest made them increasingly unique under their own vision. They have a strong claim of being perhaps the best heavy metal band working today, with the clearest vision, and they give perfect expression to something that many musicians have tried to state for decades. I find their rise to be supporting evidence that people who genuinely love art should spend a lot of time in smaller experimental music clubs, because that is what Behemoth’s perfection grew out of.

Occultism refers to hiddenness, and Behemoth songs point towards hidden truths but also manage to succeed at putting them front and center. Every note coming from every instrument carries their ideas in perfect harmony, even when they are creating sounds of primeval chaos. The band is mostly angry at things that are worth being unhappy about, and they see Satan as a way out from those obstacles, a chaotic force crashing through the chains that hold people down. In a nonreligious world, their music would simply be considered positive, because while Christianity wouldn’t like the things they praise, everything that’s normally considered positive or good, in many respects even moral, gets tied to Satan. So rather than praising the opposite of goodness, they are changing its name. There are many advantages to doing so, because whatever good might be in Christianity has been mixed so heavily with power, politics, and money that it’s hard to imagine its moral or spiritual ideas being intact or serious. So the band’s interest in Satan is a positive thing because of the way they express that in music and performance. 

The West

Behemoth being from Poland is important. The size of the country and the borders it shares have made Poland an important place for East European art, but the unfortunate instability in East Europe has led to a great deal of chaos and social difficulty at varying times that has had a sad dampening effect on the arts. A great movement will get going and then fall apart. Poland produced one of cinema’s most luminous directors in Andrzej Wajda, and his beautiful poetic film Ashes and Diamonds shows this problem well. It’s an antiwar film about World War II, and Wajda shows an entire generation having its abilities and aspirations lost in the gory fog of war. Wajda is a distinctly Polish director with mystical imagery shown throughout his films which capture a sense of that predilection being much stronger in East European art than in Western Europe.  Wajda later fought against communism and makes the case for how important Poland is capable of being for art when given the chance, and I find it fascinating that this fertile and conflicted place is the land that has given us Behemoth. 

Orion with Behemoth

The country has seen so much sad chaos and has gone and produced the world’s best band at praising chaos. Behemoth started in the 1990s, as the end of the Cold War brought an opening up to Poland that made the rise of its dark music scene possible. This band is one of the best expressions of that freedom, and Nergal has been an important critic of ways in which Poland has been closing down and moving away from those freedoms in movements towards autocracy.  His sane and reasonable political views towards basically a well functioning liberal democracy that respects personal freedom are a good reason to take his Satanism seriously as something valuable. While politicians and religious clergy keep getting in trouble for stealing things and abusing young people, Behemoth has been a professional musical outfit that brings rock and roll bliss and inspiration to music venues. So it appears that Satan may have more class than god these days.

Behemoth also deserves to be situated within a larger collapse and criticism of hegemony in the West. That is to say simply, a lot is very wrong with the West and its imperial power structures. Western institutions have frequently proven to be corrupt (a Catholic cardinal recently indicted, the American public horrified by both Trump and Hillary). The political ideas have resulted in failure while false talk about equality really produced economic inequality, with rhetoric about freedom producing the opposite as people are tracked and controlled by electronic devices. The planet has been destroyed by environmental harm caused by western industry and religious views of man being the center of the world with nature left as a thing to be used and exploited. Other parts of the world have been enslaved. It’s a large mess in need of critique, and Behemoth are criticizing religious views at the core of that flawed civilization. Friedrich Nietzsche also offered a powerful rebuke of god in the 19th century, with his prophetic claim that god is dead and that culture would thus undergo severe change, and Nergal is educated enough to know this cultural history as he criticizes the Christian world. Rather than just promoting Satanism, the reality of the band is that they are so open minded that what someone chooses to take from Behemoth is going to depend on who they are. Nergal is someone who wants to make people think for themselves and criticize more than a person who wants to preach, and to some Satanists, that’s the whole point of Satan anyway, a rebellious spirit and an individual rather than a sheep (another idea that echoes Nietzsche).

What they have achieved with the entire grand Satanic adventure though is musical perfection for heavy metal. Like the clearly great albums such as Paranoid by Black Sabbath, Reign in Blood by Slayer, and Altars of Madness by Morbid Angel, people are likely to listen to The Satanist and I Loved You at Your Darkest and take them apart piece by piece for the next 30 years as perfect and masterful metal sounds. They aren’t the albums every band will want to make, because they are so odd and so distinct, but they perfect their genre with such a clear and intricate vision that they can’t be surpassed and can only be equalled, and even then only by the very best of bands. Because of musical acts like Behemoth metal will likely have great bands for decades to come, and it makes the mainstream rock press look like a joke for not taking the genre seriously back when it was a new movement with the likes of Judas Priest developing it. Anyone with a sincere interest in rock is inclined to hail Satan, Behemoth, and metal for good ideas and rock and roll fun that are all inventive enough to show people new ways to think and live while many other musical genres turn out predictable commercialism with no soul.

I Loved You at Your Darkest

I Loved You at Your Darkest opens with a bold challenge to god in the form of children singing and making fun of Christ, as though Behemoth is telling us that the future does not belong to Christianity and that we are all Satan’s children rather than Christ’s. Then things quickly become brutal with the pounding song Wolves ov Siberia that really does sound a lot like angry wolves circling in a pack as the guitars rise into shredding ecstasy that blends with grinding rhythms the way only Behemoth seem to position their guitar right into those rhythms so the lead instrument and the bass seem to be in some crazy hellacious dance together. Then things get even more pounding with God = Dog, an equation that is not devout, but with music that might as well be divine as it has even more insane drumming. Things approach beauty on Ecclesia Diabolica Catholica where we see an interesting side to the band. All of the dislike of Christianity is housed alongside a fascination both with its past and with the history of the West. So in spite of the sincere Satanism, I wouldn’t call Behemoth hateful of what they criticize, and Nergal has made friendly comments about Pope Francis trying to right some of the church’s wrongs.

Nergal with Behemoth

Bartzabel invokes a demon with guitar parts that actually sound beautiful and are more ornate than most metal bands can achieve. If Crucifixion Was Not Enough… is definitely not a song praising Jesus. For the millions of people around the world who are sick of listening to Christians yell crazy and angry things though, it’s a relief to hear Nergal take apart Jesus with his screaming metal as the guitar and bass sound like a twisted church burning down. Orion is a hell of a good bass player and no doubt contributes a lot of the band’s signature sound of dramatic heaviness with a fast grinding tempo. This album is much more of a whirlwind than the previous one and some speed and ornateness is taking over from the previous emphasis on primordial heaviness with very complicated arrangements that leave me with suspicions the band’s great success got them a lot of studio time that they used very well. A nice thing about metal being a successful subgenera is that resources are there with labels like Nuclear Blast to support their most successful artists well enough, but without a lot of commercial pressure as would have happened in commercial rock of 20 years ago. Halfway through the album I feel like Glenn Danzig had a child with the demoness in his classic song Her Black Wings, and it seems to be Nergal.

We Are the Next 1000 Years is a savage attack on the world that was and proclaims a new world without god. Lines like, “We are the ending of all days,” suggest genuine artistic potential in the imagery that Christianity has tied to Satan, with its overcoming of everything that is supposed to be normal, which is often a goal for the arts. To make the point well, the line, “We are the deportees from the promised land,” suggests real moral problems with the way Christ is conceived as saving some while god condemns others to hell. PIG makes the same point as Raymond Watts sings on Diamond Sinners and other industrial songs about the many people who are left out of heaven. Well, morally one should presumably care about the well being of all human beings and not some chosen few. So again Satan represents something good. It’s a brilliantly conceived turn of sin into rock thematics and aesthetics with big ideas and fine musicianship, and the album and the live performance are both so good that it’s hard to choose which version of the band is better, but it’s hard to find a better live rock band now than Behemoth.

For all the controversy that Satan may cause, in some ways, the future that Nergal wants is the one that started with Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, and democratic revolutions around the world under the Enlightenment. It’s a world where people are free to think and decide things for themselves and a world in which rationality is more important than myth. Christianity is tied deeply to the kings of Europe, to imperial Rome, and to dogmatic oppression of human beings by other people who are not really godly but are often corrupt. Alongside the rise of Behemoth as such an important band with such powerful criticisms against western institutions, we have also seen the rise of a disturbing authoritarianism around the world. Clearly something is wrong with mainstream society and its values, and the mainstream press is a joke for not taking underground art and music more seriously for rejecting so much that is broken. Behemoth want to be our saviors by rejecting corruption, abuses of power, dogmatism, and illegitimate authority over other people. Those seem like noble artistic goals.

Butcher Babies – Lilith – music review

Butcher Babies – Lilith – music review

After listening to the Butcher Babies and attending their shows for many years, I was surprised by how excellent their last album is. I expected another strong release with similar sounds to what their previous two albums and EPs had built, but they have accomplished a major advance. Lilith has managed to pull off a stylistic shift that is certainly in harmony with the previous releases but also manages to break a great deal of new ground for the band. Their music is often good at presenting a mixture of aggression and insanity as the two female singers play off against each other with whirling aggression, and it’s a very different approach to a female fronted band. The songs on their debut album, Goliath, built a picture of a dark urban landscape similar to a horror movie, and it is an underrated example of urban depiction, because the songs offered a compelling description of Los Angeles as a decaying urban horror.

They borrow from a lot of classic 80’s metal while picking and choosing new sounds from some of the best subgenre metal bands such as Meshuggah, with clear threads of death metal and gothic industrial sounds. It shapes together into a mixture of fairly deep social depictions at the same time as being a fun party band for anyone seeing them live. Heidi and Carla are both serious fans of industrial music and go to underground industrial shows together, and Henry’s guitar sounds are influenced by melodic death metal with odd threads of psychedelia. That’s a great mixture that highlights some of the most interesting underground sounds around, and they should be seen as a band that offers a strong bridge between heavy metal and gothic styles.

Part of the attraction to their music is that they can say so much without taking themselves too seriously, even though a lot of the music is very serious. Anthemic old style metal has its influence, but it translates into fun segments of Butcher Babies songs while a much richer cacophony and set of ideas unfolds alongside the choruses. The most singable parts are often disrupted with the dual vocalists playing off each other and the strong bass and drums grinding along. There are clear influences from industrial and noise sounds built into that, and in keeping with Carla Harvey being a mortician, and Heidi Shepherd just an unusual and smart person who is able to look from a somewhat different perspective than average, the songs often depict decay alongside hope. They are fundamentally decent people with songs hoping for something positive but portraying disappointment at the way the world works, sometimes with songs that could be referencing a horror movie but are actually about American urban life with its too frequent despair and degradation. 

with Heidi Shepherd from the Butcher Babies
with Heidi

Henry Flury is an unusually sensitive guitarist with fairly deep emotion coming through in his playing alongside nicely sliding melodies that go from carefully paced to psychedelic in ways that can seem a bit surprising. His guitar is an excellent counter to the harsh aggressive vocals of Heidi and Carla, but it can also switch into melodic playing that complements Heidi’s cleaner vocals very nicely. The guitar from Henry develops more melodies than seem apparent from the aggressive sounds of the singers and driving rhythms of the band. The drums blast away with Jason Klein’s grinding bass, but they have a consistency that is hypnotic as much as aggressive. There is often a nice contrast between the insanity of the two singers and the smoothness of the rhythm section.

The new drummer, Chase Brickenden, has brought a great deal more consistency to the Butcher Babies. They had a fine drummer before with Chris Warner, but he tended to vary his tempo during shows. Chase is incredibly consistent, and it seems to create a great deal more confidence for the rest of the band. Heidi seemed more focused on stage especially, with less time looking at other band members to make adjustments during live sets. The old era of the band was great fun with shows that seemed to evolve somewhat throughout the night as Chris made adjustments on the drums, while the new version of the band seems like one focused attacking performance. I like both versions, but I feel like Chase is providing excellent confidence and support to everyone.

Lilith

On Lilith, their sound expands in very interesting directions. The album includes rhythm changes and tempo adjustments and more styles of singing than either Goliath or Take It Like a Man, and it works very well against the songs that are still aggressive in their traditional way. Those aggressive songs sound more polished and thought through on this album. My favorite track is Korova, a song about revolution, freedom, and tragedy. The songs from their releases are often more meaningful than is suggested by rock articles focusing so heavily on the female singers, with themes of oppression getting nice development from their vocals while Henry’s guitar seems to echo their complaints. Korova particularly highlights this well. The song describes the Russian revolution with its hope of liberation only leading to tragedy as people who fought for freedom become enslaved by the people who were supposed to free them. The wonderful ironic line, “Now liberate me,” could be a line within anthemic 80s rock, but it is transposed into a far more complex song while, “We can live forever, but if we die, we die together. Run with me,” becomes a very moving refrain. The transitions between fast and slow sections of the song and harsh and clean vocals is simply beautiful and inspiring, and it captures the fire and desire of revolution as well as its obstacles enormously well. It is truly an accomplished song and my personal favorite from the album.

Carla Harvey with the Butcher Babies
Carla at Moxi Theater in Greeley, CO, 8/2/18

Headspin also is a standout song, and it has the same cowriter as Korova. It uses cleaner vocals with stronger harmonies and changes in tempo, and it adds great emotion to the song. It’s about a relationship and captures the whirling intensity of a powerful encounter. The lyrics also capture some of the best attributes of the band, with nice emphasis on screams, insanity, and loss of bodily control. I like that both of these songs are clearly aimed towards some of the best talents of the Butcher Babies, and it would seem that the writer they worked with really studied their capabilities and helped them craft something towards those strengths.

Heidi has a deceptive voice and is not an average singer. She sings in a metal scream very often but is frequently conveying insanity when doing that, as is especially apparent on their earlier cover of They’re Coming to Take Me Away. It’s a song that fits them very well as a cover, because it focuses on a quality that they love to emphasize on so many of their own songs. With Carla singing with her, their voices sound like an aggressive whirlwind coming from all sides, and the calmer rhythm section gives depth to their aggression. Heidi is able to sing very beautifully on the clearer vocal sections of their songs but has used that sparingly for most of the band’s recordings. She goes in that direction much more on Lilith and has calmer parts with deeper melodies that propel the songs.

The album really brings out something that has always been in Butcher Babies shows and is usually never commented on. Henry Flury’s guitar sections go from aggressive death metal style blasting to more melodic and psychedelic sounds sometimes, and it can make the band especially transporting after becoming delirious from the aggressive parts. Butcher Babies shows are like a friendly attack with a decent amount of moshing for the audience size, but there is a calmer and more melodic side to the band happening at the same time. This happens alongside of an obvious friendliness. It is great to hear the Lilith album develop those impulses more, because they were more apparent in live shows and less so in recordings until this album. It really shows what the band is capable of and where it is going and captures a lot of what I thought was different about their live shows versus their recordings.

Heidi Shepherd of the Butcher Babies
Heidi at Moxi Theater in Greely, CO, 8/2/18

The band has some of the nicest people I have met in music, and Heidi is a standout personality with deep intelligence and charming kindness. Her ideas seem to come from another place at times, though she is very grounded as an aggressive front person for a band. The love of metal comes out as a very strong projection with her. Lilith is their definitive album and will be hard to top, but with a third album it is now very fun to listen to all of their work with a clear progression and point of destination in mind. 

The first album stands out as decayed and ferocious, a portrait of messed up urban life in Los Angeles that is witnessed well by newer metal bands with the types of things they have to deal with there. The second album is more mature but mostly has similarly styled songs with some surprising new directions on individual songs like the beautiful Thrown Away, which got a very powerful acoustic performance at the Moxi Theater in Greeley back in August. Very focused and clear ideas also come together on songs like Dead Man Walking. Now with the third album this all starts to look like an art gallery of urban graffiti with segues to a classy jazz club where surprising sounds are being thrown into a more carefully thought out composition. To me, this marks the Butcher Babies going from a fun and good new band to an established and important voice in heavy metal. They’re still a midsize band and not a huge one, but this is in many ways the best creative place to be. They can do what they want and have room to develop.

Carla Harvey and Jason Klein
Carla and Jason
September Mourning – Volume II – music review

September Mourning – Volume II – music review

September Mourning is the gothic mixed media art project of Emily Lazar collaborating to an extent with comic book artist Mark Silvestri. One portion of that project is a rock band veering somewhere between goth rock and heavy metal. Emily plays the part of September with an expensive and beautiful ghostly costume used for live performances, but she is also the songwriter and vocalist. She stands out as an obvious auteur and has effectively built her own music and persona from scratch. Mark Silvestri writes comic books that expand on an entire story about fate, justice, good, and evil which fill in the character of September, but Emily’s music is more than capable of standing on its own.

While the comic books add depth to the character and form a fascinating and well drawn story which allows the entire project to emerge as a synthesis of words, images, and sounds, September Mourning as a band is a very distinct phenomenon to explore. The album, Volume II, gets its title from being preceded by the comic book story. So it is continuing and telling a larger story about September’s battle against fate, but as a musical work it stands out as very high quality and unique.

with Emily Lazy as September Mourning
with Emily

Notable at once is the sound of Emily’s voice reaching beautiful highs but stressing the midpoint in the mix so that she is blended a bit with the instruments and sounds somewhat ghostly. Her voice particularly has a way of sliding nicely against the guitar parts and captures an ethereal echo that very much fits the character she is portraying. The songs tend towards being very harmonious but also pose a strong contrast between dark and light as is typical of goth sounds and with sufficient aggression to qualify as heavy metal.

Concept

The way the songs fit together into a larger story and also stand up individually is a major accomplishment for September Mourning. Rock has always been filled with the paradox of concept albums being strong on ideas but having a hard time making individual songs stand out or sometimes falling under their own weight in an overly complicated execution. This album is taking that idea much further and is doing it with a great deal of success in making each song manage to stand out as its own highlight and clear statement.

Emily Lazar as September Mourning
Emily as September, Herman’s Hideaway, Denver, 9/20/18

The dispersion of music that has happened due to digital technology has generally left music commentary and criticism empty headed. As a proliferation of works has happened independently and across many genres, record companies have focused on small areas of music which are increasingly safe and derivative, while an expanding underground scene has produced a variety of exciting artists who do what they want artistically in exchange for the diminished income musicians deal with in the 21st century. Record companies have been relatively uninterested in looking for the best musicians, because they don’t make as much money as they used to and thus focus on reliable commercial sounds.

This means that when intelligent things happen, subgroups are more aware than mainstream commentators. In the case of September Mourning, the idea of the concept album that critics used to find so fascinating and worth expounding on has certainly gone much further than classic albums were able to accomplish. The character of September and her story of struggling against the injustices of fate gets full development not only in the album, but also in comic books and in some videos she has created for projection on stage. It is then explored with a story in the album, and the songs all manage to be successful both on their own and in the context of the entire work.

Fate

The story examines fate closely and presents the idea that innocent people are left with unfortunate fates that leave them destined to live in bad circumstances and to suffer injustices. Fate is essentially evil, and the character of September becomes a rebel against its injustices. She intervenes to save someone from wraiths who work on behalf of fate to take people when their life has been determined to be over. In a world of never ending mortality from which none of us are exempt, this is a compelling story, but it also leaves room for social commentary. 

Emily Lazar as September Mourning

Many people are left with circumstances shaped by society which force them into negative situations. This frequently happens in America due to power structures which are designed to oppress people for the advantage of the wealthy. We find characters who are down on their luck and thus are supposed to die according to fate, but September won’t have it and decides to endanger herself for the sake of heroically stopping the hand of fate. This leads to her being pursued by fate and the wraiths, and we see this in the stage design as she dons a beautiful white outfit made of leather that is able to capture a nice glow from the dark stage lighting. She is surrounded by worn down looking malefic wraiths who play the instruments for Emily.

The songs are uniformly excellent on Volume II, and there are no obvious gaps or weak points. Skin and Bones stands out as a favorite of mine, and it captures the spiritual theme of consciousness being more than mere physicality yet something that is trapped within physical parameters. The skin of the song metaphorically stands out as an outward reflection of a persona shown to the world, while the bones point to what is left after death and the interior dimensions we seek to keep healthy during life. September Mourning is deeply gothic and constantly acknowledges the path out of life and into other planes of existence.

The cover art for the album is filled with symbolism of both the self as a part of the larger universe and of nirvana as we see light radiating from the head of September. Emily succeeds at singing with deep emotion and sometimes anger that emphasizes what is at stake in the larger story as well as the misfortune of humanity for being trapped within the narrow confines of fate. Angels to Dust shows this well as the song describes transcending physicality through destruction. “And in the end, when we’ve lost our only trust, we’ll turn from angels into dust, until there’s nothing, nothing left of us.” The song makes nihilistic loss of the self sound like transcendence into something higher. This correlates nicely with certain strands of Zen thought from Japan such as the work of Kenji Nishitani in which annihilation of selfhood allows for transcending average awareness. 

Emily as September Mourning

The songs also capture the essence of humanity being more than physicality. Music is a beautiful medium for expressing this, because its lack of obvious physical parameters allows for a more thoughtful exploration of awareness itself and spiritual motifs. Before the Fall shows this very nicely with lines like, “No matter what comes of us, when we bleed we bleed the same.”

‘Til You See Heaven is a beautiful closer for the album that captures the message of the band very well. Descent is the fate of humanity, and the ruination of the world is inevitable due to its brokenness. So salvation is found in transcending this and escaping the mundane world such that death eventually becomes a passage rather than a negative fate and by finding light in the meantime. That does not mean mere physicality, and September represents this passage beautifully as she sings, “And when you close your eyes, you will feel paradise. You’ll see the brightest light. Stay with me.”

Arch Enemy – Will to Power – music review

Arch Enemy – Will to Power – music review

Arch Enemy has been around for more than 20 years and has been taken seriously as an important band for a lot of that time. They still show growth and are one of the most influential bands working today. Their new album, Will to Power, is their best work to date, and the supporting tour is selling out around the world. Alissa White-Gluz replaced longtime, though actually second, singer Angela Gossow on the previous album and has instilled new life in the band. She has a remarkable energy and delivery with more frequent breaks and stylistic shifts than the grinding growling hissing pace of the previous singer, who continues to manage the band.

Angela took over as their singer well more than a decade ago and delivered five important albums with them. Over that time, the band developed and layered increasingly intricate sounds. It gave a lot of background for Alissa to work from with a previous singer who has some stylistic similarities and a band with a large repertoire and clear vision. Placing Alissa into this mix was a brilliant move, because the band’s continual development left them working very well with a new singer but gaining an additional perspective that gave them a new spark.

War Eternal was an impressive debut for Alissa with the band and gave songs with a clear message. Will to Power refines that into a consistently bold testimonial with deep layers of complex shifts in melody and tempo. Death metal fuses with melody and new age ideas for the band as they critique personal and humanistic evolution impeded by oppression. Rather than just being dark, death metal becomes a war cry against oppression for them and allows the band to offer a universal message of freedom and overcoming negative forces.

with Arch Enemy
with Arch Enemy

Having a singer who sounds so much like she means it sharpens the band’s ideas and instrumental excellence even further. When she cries, “This is fucking war,” it sounds real, and both the studio recordings and live presentations amplify this. Seeing her yell that while 1300 people jumped into the air with her at a sold out show at Summit Music Hall in Denver really does make her look serious, and the band’s ideas are in the right places enough that they are worth getting behind. At one point in the show, Alissa waved a black flag with the band’s logo, and it looked legitimate when any other band would have been hard to take seriously. People around the world in supposed democracies are oppressed, and death metal’s long tradition of feisty boldness with esotericism is a beautiful thing to put into that complaint about injustice. It becomes truly epic when added to the melodies the band builds. 

Visionary

Michael Amott is one of the best guitarists in the world, and he moves from shredding death metal aggression to melodic harmonies happening at a fast but fluid pace. It allows for emotion to become present in the songs without being superficial, because his melodies stay complex and move fluidly into the next passage too fast to seem like he is merely trying to emote with the audience. It provokes a very powerful and overwhelming experience of sound as a much larger and sweeping aura. Where the Angela albums had a more grinding pace, the Alissa albums have more breaks. This fits the styles of the two singers. Alissa is proving an inspired lyricist with very poetic lines to work with, though Michael has a hand in the lyrics, and this style gives his guitar a chance to move aggressively and fluidly between very different passages.

The whole band has unusual and inspired personalities with a strong camaraderie between all members of Arch Enemy playing off of one another exceptionally well and writing the music together, though with Michael Amott standing out as the main songwriter and visionary of the band. Alissa seems apart from this familiar mixture yet very much crucial to the mix in just the right way. She has come in late in the band’s existence, but she reflects their ideas and inspires them in a profound way. Changing singers suddenly in a 20 year old band leaves a lot that is hard to predict, and having this turn out so well is an amazing story.

Michael Amott with Arch Enemy
Michael Amott with Arch Enemy

Dark music is in a very strong time of its own right now. The 21st century is clearly filled with problems and negativity, spread across environmental disaster, animal abuses, civil rights oppression, serious failures of liberal politics, lower wages, lack of jobs, technological oppression, and possible world war. Collectively gothic, industrial, dark metal (such as doom, black, and death), and some styles of punk have responded strongly to this with bold statements and great depths of inspiration. It is an artistic renaissance happening in subgenere rock. Arch Enemy capture many of these ideas and are one of the brightest spots within a larger trend.

Some trends of anthemic metal are preserved within them but with dense complexity and none of the superficiality inherent in some of those bands. Choruses are fun to sing but tend to grind and happen alongside breaks in Amott’s guitar and stylistic flourishes from Alissa. Usually the choruses are well thought out and have metaphorical value that make them much more interesting to sing along with than a lot of metal can offer.

Songs

The songs on Will to Power are a complex and bold testimony to the band’s key themes and ideas. It plays as a fully mature work that distills their major themes with bold harmonics that are far less obvious than their average (still very good) works. War Eternal is a good album, but it sounds transitional. Some songs are gems and some seem a bit simple in structure. This makes sense to me as the band was rapidly changing to a new singer. New ideas are present on that album but are not quite complete.

As the Pages Burn and War Eternal are very important songs about material surroundings oppressing who we really are. Certainly society’s record keeping ties people down to superficial things that may not be good descriptions of their best capacities and natures, and As the Pages Burn gives lyrical expression to a release of selfhood with the collapse of that social burden. It is similar to a description of karma, as an inner release tied to the overcoming of superficiality allows for one to evolve under that view.

War Eternal tells a similar story of a long term war which is the struggle for humanity to evolve spiritually or personally while social forces work to oppress people. Fascism, slavery, low wage labor, propaganda, etc. all mislead people into superficial understandings of who they are based on surrounding things. To free people from this is a struggle for liberation, and it is one that does not go away. The idea is actually ecstatic in the Greek sense of a release from one’s surroundings, because it advocates for the freeing of humanity as a whole without tying it to any specific political event. It is a deeper message and an ongoing struggle that would likely go better if we could figure out what the real obstacles are, and it is quite valuable to have a band smart enough to have this message. Arch Enemy is a fun band and often gets described as merely rebellious due to this, but as the band matures, the clearer the message becomes, and the more intricate and profound it is.

Alissa White-Gluz with Arch Enemy
Alissa White-Gluz with Arch Enemy in Denver at Summit Music Hall, 11/17/17

My favorite song on Will to Power is Eagle Flies Alone. This track describes solitude as a soaring above averageness and uses the metaphor of the eagle. In keeping with the name of the album, this idea does indeed exist in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. His favorite animals are birds and snakes, and he likes the eagle for being a predator while also solitary. It refuses to be conquered but is by no means vicious. Metaphorically, it rises and soars above what others fall in line with, and Nietzsche associates this with overcoming traditional morals and social negativity into a higher existence. The lyrics for the song focus on deception and corruption in the world and suggest that an honest person could not be average at all. This is a metal subculture view at the same time as something that can be developed out of Nietzsche, and it is wonderful to see a counterculture idea being so intelligent and thoughtful. 

Blood in the Water speaks about a closing down of options with lines like, “Yesterday’s ideas are just a dream,” and impending danger of oppression, “as the blind lead the blind.” It fits the world climate well, and Arch Enemy correctly points out that the further the oppression goes the more people will fight until the global order may find it hard to exist. While the 21st century has generally been filled with negativity and a widening gap around the world between the super rich and everyone else, this sort of absurdity breeds opposition.

States that care more about military attacks than about peace and justice may find it hard to get along with their populations. As wages dwindle and much of the world does not treat healthcare as a human right, people are apt to complain about the problem much more, and as technology offers new ways to track and oppress people, there is less reason to trust the powerful. In such a context, dark artistic expression has become very important and relevant, and this band is one of the most powerful and prescient examples of that.

On the stage, Alissa is impossible to describe. She’s a friendly person off stage, and that is preserved when she takes her place in front of the audience with her normal smiling personality, but when she gets into a lyric she completely shapes herself and the entire scene to the meaning of the song as though she is channeling the larger message of Arch Enemy. It makes her one of the most perfect performers I have ever seen. Truly a fiery personality, emotions erupt from her with perfect timing and poise that no one else has.

There are singers I like as much, but I have never seen a person front a band better. I would imagine that Freddie Mercury may have been like this for people who got to see him perform, but she is so natural at what she does that it makes rock seem like it is only at the beginning while a lot of people have just been grinding out the obvious instead of exploring what can be done artistically in new and bolder ways. Much of what Alissa does can only be seen in person, and no one else can do it. This is a perfect band, album, and tour and one of the best things happening in music.