Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Welcome back fools, Part III is now officially underway, let's cut the bullshit and get right to it.

30: Darkthrone - Under a Funeral Moon (1993) 
Where A Blaze in the Northern Sky carried some remnants of Darkthrone's early death metal phase and kept the song structures weird and diverse, Under a Funeral Moon is where they truly and definitively came into their own and embraced black metal's ethos of minimalist atmosphere and lo-fi workmanship.  This doesn't sound like technically skilled musicians playing to the best of their ability, this sounds amateurish on purpose, and in a way that's even more impressive.  What makes this so much different than the legions of clones that this album spawned (and to a greater extent, the following Transilvanian Hunger) is that instead of sounding like kids who can't play their instruments and got into black metal because it's easy, this sounds like every last micron of extraneous fat has been stripped away.  There is no fluff whatsoever on Under a Funeral Moon.  Despite that, unlike their contemporary Burzum, they don't necessarily strip so much away that they land on total ambience.  Instead, tracks like "Unholy Black Metal" and "Natassja in Eternal Sleep" are still metal to the fucking core, with noisy cymbal crashes dominating the trebly mix during constant blast beats and riffs that slow down almost never.  The eternal classic "To Walk the Infernal Fields" likely stands out specifically because of that, because it's the first track where the trio really dials back the tempo and manages to retain that overwhelming atmosphere of pure malice.  No matter the speed, the general feeling, the white hot burning core of the music, remains as unrelenting and dangerous as it begins.  It just never falters, and 25+ years later it still stands as one of my all time favorite albums in the entire genre.  I can't recall the source, but I feel like I recall reading at some point that Fenriz himself considers this to be the only "true" black metal album in Darkthrone's impressive discography, and while I don't necessarily agree with that, I find it hard to argue against the opinion that this is the purest one, and incidentally, also their best.  I said before that Darkthrone is one of the most truly legendary bands in metal history, and Under a Funeral Moon is my proof.

29: Entombed - Left Hand Path (1990) 
If we're going by review scores alone, according to the Metal Archives, Left Hand Path is the greatest album of all time, currently standing with 16 reviews and an astounding 98% average score at the time of this writing (going a whopping ten years from 08-18 with every new review being a perfect score).  It's even currently the #9 best death metal album of all time according to RYM, which is impressive considering the userbase there is full of arrogant /mu/ nerds who have it ranked below the worst Death album and fucking Gojira.  The point is, Entombed's debut has absolutely stood the test of time as a watershed moment in death metal history, and the fact that I have 28 albums ranked above it here is more of a personal failing of my own than anything Entombed is at fault for.  This is, as far as I'm concerned, the most important and definitive Swedeath album of all time.  The entire niche sound that this country carved out for itself in the early 90s was codified here, and for better or worse, everybody is still trying to one up this album.  The title track opens the record with a bang, the likes of which not seen since the creation of the cosmos, and from there it just never stops.  There were a lot of tiny things that went perfectly right and wound up creating an entire scene.  Like, for one, it's easy to forget when listening to this that Left Hand Path was recorded by four high school aged teenagers in a small studio for a debut album only a few months after a name change and a rough three track demo.  This happened fast, and it happened early.  The guitar tone achieved here put Sunlight Studios on the map and made it the mecca for Swedeath bands, with that impossibly heavy distortion becoming an instant trademark that immediately gave away the recording location of any given band at the time, and became the only real rival to the Scott Burns treatment at Morrissound for Americans.  I'd be failing as a critic to not also point out the massive amount of punk (particularly d-beat) influence on the album, helping to keep the aggression at meteoric highs and the adrenaline at a constant.  Tracks like "Supposed to Rot" really showcase this.  You really can't go wrong with any track though, as the title track is a vaunted classic and "Bitter Loss" contains some of the best DM riffs of all time.  If you like pretty much any Swedeath from any point in history, you have Left Hand Path to thank for that.

28: Suffocation - Breeding the Spawn (1993) 
This is without a doubt one of the most tragically screwed records in extreme metal history.  Suffocation understandably wanted to work with Scott Burns again like they did on their debut, but Roadrunner was a fucking cheapskate label and didn't want to pay the premium to send one of the best bands in the world to the best studio in the country, and instead wound up forcing them to record more locally in New York, which led to Breeding the Spawn ultimately being produced and mixed by a guy who, according to Discogs, has a handful of credits on a dozen jazz albums and nothing else, and mastered by a guy who is most well known for producing landmark rap and hip hop albums (though oddly enough he also mastered Mercyful Fate's Melissa, which is one of the greatest albums ever written and sounds phenomenal, so I'm willing to put most of the blame on the first guy here).  So instead of the heaviest sound ever like the albums surrounding it, Breeding the Spawn is a weird mess that's both trebly and muddy, relegating what could've been Suffocation's crowning achievement to a bizarre footnote that they've spent the rest of their career trying to fix.  It's quite clear as well, since as soon as two years later they had started a tradition of rerecording one song on each new album in a quest to slowly recreate the album that could've been.  And it's a worthy endeavor too, because many of these are the best songs they ever wrote.  That mangled, unusual weirdness that I was talking about in the Pierced from Within entry is amplified by a million here, with tracks like "Epitaph of the Credulous" being some of the most chaotic and frantic shit they'd ever put to their name (seriously check out the bass noodling about a minute into that track).  I think the badness of the production is kinda overhyped, because I mean this still sounds vicious as hell, but it's clearly a shell of what it could've been, and the fact that I love it as much as I do should just make the quality of the songs themselves all the more apparent.  I know I already referenced it earlier, but I need to defer to Cheeses_Priced's review yet again, because he makes the point so much clearer than I ever could, and of all the reviews I wish I had written, this one is probably the one I wish I had written the most: "...the first few moments of the song “Breeding the Spawn” sound like what you’d get if you sent two (or more?) distinct riffs through a telepod together, yielding some horrible, twitching, barely-alive monstrosity of death metal guitar playing whose mere existence is a blasphemy against creation."  In their prime, almost nobody was better than Suffocation, and the fact that they arguably their best album got fuckin' kneecapped during the recording process was probably a good thing because otherwise everybody else would've just packed it in and quit, because nobody else was going to write a song as good as "Prelude to Repulsion" or "Anomalistic Offerings".

27: Blind Guardian - Imaginations from the Other Side (1995) 
Dear god it's all been death and black metal for like 15 positions, do I like anything else??  Turns out yes I do, and I'm here to scream at you about how Blind Guardian is one of the greatest bands to ever walk this earth and anybody who doesn't like them is factually incorrect and all opinions about anything else should be disregarded out of hand.  Imaginations from the Other Side is the first album that truly cemented their future direction as one of the biggest bands ever in terms of sound.  The rough speed metal of the first few albums is still here in places like "I'm Alive" and "Born in a Mourning Hall", but there's a new sense of bigness that just wasn't quite there on those seminal early works.  Hansi and the Choir of a Million Identical Hansis came into their own here, and between the fast songs like the aforementioned and the album highlight, "Script for My Requiem" and the ones that sacrifice speed for epic scope like the title track and "And the Story Ends" the entire album just feels like the grandest event metal had in the entire decade.  Hansi's vocals are the highlight here like usual, and I think this hits the perfect nexus between his crooning bardery and his more ravenous screams from the speed metal era.  You can hear so much grit and venom in the chorus to a song that is otherwise very clean and melodic like "Bright Eyes", and he never again hit such a sublime balance.  Cleaner metal like this hit a huge dead patch in the mid 90s and didn't really recover until the mainstream finally gave up on nu and groove metal, but if people still wanted traditionally styled heavy metal at the time, this could've cemented Blind Guardian as Iron Maiden-level huge.  It's a shame, but ultimately it doesn't matter because time has vindicated this album as the milestone that it is, and my hot take is that even though power metal owes the bulk of its sound most directly to Helloween and Judas Priest, Imaginations from the Other Side is the album that truly kicked off the late 90s wave in Europe.  After this, everybody had to step up their game to even be in the conversation, and everything just got bigger and bigger and it never really stopped growing from here.  If each album couldn't be a fucking event like Blind Guardian could do, then you weren't even worth talking about.

26: Running Wild - Black Hand Inn (1994)
For a long time, or at least as recent as twelve-ish years ago when I first truly got into the band, this was seen as Running Wild's last truly great album.  I think they stayed good for a few more albums but there's no denying that 1994 was a landmark year for them.  While they had better albums earlier on in the 80s, I think Black Hand Inn actually solidified one of their most recognizable sounds with the addition of Thilo Hermann (with his relentlessly melodic guitar lines) and Jorg Michael (with his constant power metal influenced double bass and absolutely gigantic Moyai face).  Running Wild has always been Rolf's band first and foremost but it's obvious that the other assorted members have always left an indelible mark on whichever album they appear on, and that's as true here as anywhere else.  The other major change was that this was the first time Rolf attempted to write a full on start to finish concept album, and honestly it's kind of a major flop.  The story is paced poorly and incomprehensibly, with pirates shoehorned in there out of nowhere because that's apparently the only thing he really knows sometimes.  Featuring a mysterious man with fortune telling powers, a witch burning, an entire song dedicated to calling a priest and asshole, regular old pirate songs, "Holy Dragonmen", and eventually culminating in a 15 minute epic (complete with Rolf's trademark cornball narration) about the history of Earth that starts when aliens land on the planet to mine gold.  Yeah it's kind of a mess, but telling stories was never Rolf's strength.  His strength was always just writing kickass songs, and that's where Black Hand Inn excels.  That 15 minute epic, "Genesis", is right up there with "Treasure Island" in terms of the best long Running Wild song, featuring one of the catchiest choruses ever and more hooks than your dad's tackle box.  While the songs that toe the line of heavy metal and hard rock like "Soulless", "Freewind Rider", and "Fight the Fire of Hate" are all very good, it's the speed/power metal influenced songs that are more in line with Running Wild's traditional bread and butter that truly stand head and shoulders above the rest of the album.  "Black Hand Inn" kicks the album off with a stratospheric high note, showcasing an incredibly infectious chorus and heralding Michael's entrance with one of the fastest and most explosive tracks they'd written up to this point.  The sprawling "The Phantom of Black Hand Hill" also brings the fucking house down, and "The Privateer" is a bona fide RW classic for a reason.  I also have to give a special shoutout to "Powder and Iron", which I feel has been kinda forgotten in the canon of the band but really shouldn't be.  Just like the title track, it's fast and hooky and god damned wild.  I absolutely love this album even if the narrative thruline is a complete mess, because the individual songs themselves all smoke to a completely absurd degree.

25: Gamma Ray - Somewhere Out in Space (1997) 
Smack in the middle of their classic era, Gamma Ray released yet another enduring power metal classic with Somewhere Out in Space.  In hindsight, I don't think I ever really realized it back then, but really, their sci-fi themes really did help them stand out since seemingly the only other band in the genre leaning into the depths of outer space nearly this hard was Iron Savior, and even then they debuted the same year and also featured Kai Hansen on guitars at the time.  Either way, lyrical themes aren't what make Gamma Ray so good, it's the quality of the songs themselves, and they excel here with those.  "Beyond the Black Hole" continues their streak of incredible album openers, with frantic bass and drums leading into a soaring guitar melody.  "Beyond the Black Hole" is one of the all time great Gamma Ray songs, and I can't recommend it enough.  Similarly to Power Plant, Gamma Ray had something of a problem loading their albums with way too many songs in order to reach that 80 minute mark that CDs could hold, but in a similar vein to the following album, it almost doesn't matter since all of the songs are so fucking good.  I'll admit that "Pray" sucks but that's mostly because every metal band that isn't Blind Guardian is just bad at ballads on principle, people like to peg "Lost in the Future" as a filler track but it's honestly one of my favorites here so I don't know what they're talking about, and "Watcher in the Sky" is probably unnecessary since it was also featured almost completely unchanged (beyond the vocals) on Iron Savior's debut, but it's still one of the best songs here so I'd feel bad cutting it, etc etc.  There's so much good material here that I can't justify cutting more than maybe one song.  Every moment is fucking impactful, because Gamma Ray's biggest strength was probably simply being ferocious and mean while being melodic and fun.  I've said before that the smiley face that power metal usually typifies was always more of a crooked-toothed sneer with Gamma Ray, and they always had this rancid chainsmoking attitude behind the major key melodies and screaming falsettos.  Check out "Men, Martians, and Machines", "The Guardians of Mankind", or the title track to get a taste of this.  Shout out to "Shine On" as well for being one of their most triumphant and exciting tunes and to "Valley of the Kings" for being one of their most "normal" power metal songs and making that one of the best in the genre as well.  They just couldn't be stopped during this streak, and that should be indisputable for any and all fans of power metal.

24: Candlemass - Chapter VI (1992) 
Candlemass was one of the best bands that existed in the 80s, but in the 90s there was eventually a pretty sharp dropoff after the reformation since nobody gave a shit about Abstrakt Algebra.  But before that point, there was an album in between the legendary Marcolin era and the Flodkvist-led AA mediocrity, and that was the tragically short lived era with Tomas Vikstrom behind the microphone, producing only one album, the unfairly forgotten Chapter VI.  While this may not be as majestic and awe inspiring as Nightfall or Tales of Creation, this hits all the right notes and does everything Candlemass does well almost as well as anything else they ever did.  Hell I even like this more than the debut, one of the most influential metal albums of all time!  I think what it is that I like so much here is the more down-to-earth and relatable nature of the music, which contrasts with their larger-than-life splendor of the Marcolin era.  He was singing odes to the gods themselves, while Vikstrom here sings about the fallout of nuclear war and a girl destroying her life through allegorical fairy tales.  This isn't as massive as those classic albums, but Leif shows that he has skill writing with a smaller scope as well, with "The Ebony Throne" probably being the best example.  It's a very simple, streamlined doom metal track that gets to the point quickly and strongly, and based on the chorus alone it's one of the best Candlemass songs ever.  "Where the Runes Still Speak" is more in the vein of classic Candlemass, though it's decidedly more downtrodden and dark than something like "Darkness in Paradise" or something.  Like, when people praise 90s and beyond Black Sabbath for any reason, I feel like they're actually listening to Chapter IV and just don't realize it, because all of those massively dark and heavy crushers that Iommi wasn't actually writing at the time apply perfectly here.  Vikstrom's voice also lends a more traditional rock element to everything as well, since the chief complain about him was that he sounded more well suited to a hard rock or power metal band than epic doom.  That's not exactly wrong but it's not really right either.  His voice is undeniably powerful and carries these songs just as well as the riffs do, but his falsetto does have this sort of sleaze that Marcolin never truly had.  It's not a worse Candlemass, but it's definitely a different one, and frankly it's one I like almost exactly as much as the classic version.

23: Gargoyle - Furebumi (1990) 
Gargoyle is a very eclectic and weird band, with every album up to the Moderngoyle era in the mid 2000s touching on all kinds of weird shit.  Their bread and butter has always been heavy and quirky thrash metal, but they've never shied away from touching on punk rock, doom metal, surf rock, or regular old poppy J-rock, and it all truly started here on their second album, Furebumi.  This is, more than anything, the definitive Gargoyle album.  Their sound was truly solidified here, and from here on out there was no more awkwardness or shaky steps.  Every weird and crazy idea was approached with utmost confidence and they pretty much never dipped below "fucking incredible".  Just listen to how frantic and ferocious tracks like "Shoumetsu", "Execute" and "Dilemma" are, and that last one can't even help itself from throwing in left-field ideas like an acoustic solo before flying into lightspeed double bass and looping back to actual god damned blast beats.  "Naidzkushi" is the predecessor to their wacky cornball songs like "Hito no Tame" and "Baby Cat" in the future and it just sounds like the most acid-and-whiskey influenced beach party of all time.  Kiba's instantly distinctive rattle is thrown to the forefront on one of my favorite songs of theirs, "Ounou no Goku", especially on the soaring chorus.  Really though, "Ounou no Goku" may be my favorite song on the album, but the two most important tracks on Furebumi are doubtlessly "Halleluyah" and "Ruten no Yo Nite".  The former would go on to be one of the their signature songs, finding itself rerecorded seemingly a million times, even as early as the very next album.  And I can't blame the band for keeping this song relevant as often as they did, because it's an explosive and raucous tune that sees the band at their heaviest and meanest, despite the imagery the title probably conjures.  If you've read my review series, you're probably familiar with the term "Ruten-like", and that's because "Ruten no Yo Nite" is so unique and iconic that they couldn't help but try to recapture the magic of that song on every single album in the future.  Some of them worked better than others, but none of them ever surpassed the original.  This is the blueprint for every long, slow, proggy, doomy song in the future, replete with marching drums, haunting violins, and a downright creepy falsetto melody.  It's a seven and a half minute dirge that assaults the senses with poignant imagery and it's one of the all time great songs in a discography that contains like thirty of the best metal songs ever written.

22: Bolt Thrower - ...for Victory (1994) 
I deviate veeeery slightly from the norm here, because I feel like The IVth Crusade is generally considered the best album in Bolt Thrower's 90s era, but it's usually put in close company with War Master and ...for Victory.  For my money, the last one is their true crown jewel of the era.  The IVth Crusade stands out for being their first album to finally and wholly excise the leftover grindcore influence from their early era, focusing entirely on a particularly doomy brand of death metal.  And hey, I can't deny it, it's a classic for a reason.  ...for Victory on the other hand, just feels BIGGER.  From the opening moments of "Remembrance" you are just pounded into fucking dust and it never really stops from there.  This is a mean fucking album, and their signature bass-heavy sound only propels these monstrous riffs even further into the sunset.  They didn't lose those doomy overtones from the previous album, but they did amp them up with a hell of a lot more energy (which is saying a lot because it's not like the previous album lacked explosiveness in any way) and as a result delivered one of their most solid collections of menacing death metal classics.  Special mention has to go to "Graven Image" for being the best song here, and even then I struggle to explain why exactly.  Bolt Thrower is just... I dunno man they're heavy.  I think it's the boosted bass presence that does it, but they always carried so much weight that you could swear they'd snap your spine on soundwaves alone.  It's also the fact that they never bought into the fact that brutality can only be achieved with overwhelming speed, because they're not afraid to pick up the pace but always maintained an extremely tight groove in every song they'd pen from here on out.  They had said at some point that they moved away from the sound on the debut because people would kinda stand around confused during the fast, grindy, blasting parts, so they decided to focus more on groovy riffs to keep the moshing and headbanging going from start to finish at shows.  I think this is weird as hell because I mean come on, how are you supposed to headbang during a blasting section?  Furiously, that's how.  Either way, I'm glad they made this change in songwriting approach, because in doing so they became one of the most instantly recognizable death metal bands of the classic era, and I wouldn't change a single thing about them.

21: Solitude Aeturnus - Beyond the Crimson Horizon (1992) 
Sometimes I catch myself committing blasphemy and claiming that Solitude Aeturnus is better than Candlemass, but really that's only true in the 90s.  The two bands are impossible not to compare, playing the exact same niche style of metal with vocalists so similar that Rob Lowe actually found himself in Candlemass in the mid 2000s after Messiah was kicked out after the second reunion and sticking around for three incredibly solid albums.  But after Marcolin's initial departure, the Americans overtook the Swedish legends with stunning alacrity.  Beyond the Crimson Horizon is their apex, and all eight tracks are the best fucking doom songs America ever produced.  I would probably rank epic doom as my all time favorite genre if every band was as good as the two biggest bands in the style, because the consistency here is unbelievable.  Just like their inescapable counterpart, I think one of the things I like most about Solitude Aeturnus is their conviction towards just not particularly caring about rules, because while this is pretty orthodox on the whole, they're still unafraid to throw in a bona fide high speed thrash section in the climax of "It Came Upon One Night", and one influence that seemingly everybody in the world can't help but point out is Fates Warning.  The point is that the ethos of "tune low, play slow" didn't apply here, and it didn't have to.  They crafted sublime worlds out of the ether and presented them to you in a way just comprehensible enough to be rocking and catchy but just surreal and otherworldly enough to feel like nothing you'd ever heard before.  The addition of screaming guitar pyrotechnics and spastic drumming gives this a weirdly technical character that very few doom bands would even try to approach, and as a result we wind up with tracks as propulsive and fiery as "The Final Sin", "Plague of Procreation", and arguably the best epic doom song ever written, "Seeds of the Desolate".  All three of the first few SA albums are nearly untouchable, but for my money, the winner has always been Beyond the Crimson Horizon, and I'll never forget the first time I heard that first heavy riff a minute and a half into "Seeds of the Desolate".  To this day, well over a decade and a half later, it still makes my head involuntarily bang with wild abandon.

And that's all for today!  Truth be told, I always try to have at least two entries done before posting the first one so I can always give myself some leeway in case I get busy for any reason and need to skip writing for a day.  But to pull the curtain back a bit, my real life day job has suddenly gotten very busy and there's a very real risk I'll miss the next deadline and wind up not getting all of this done by the end of the month like I had initially planned.  So even if the next entry takes a day or two longer than expected, fret not!  They're coming!  Thank you so much for sticking around and let's just kick this thing's ass!

1 comment:

  1. And here I was about to complain that part II was light on power metal.
    Always good to see the fun albums among the heavier or more dreary stuff. Looking forward to the next post