Thursday, September 29, 2011

Judas Priest - Painkiller

The best can suck it, THIS is what I'd rather hear

Oh lord, another glowing review for Judas Priest's foray into the heavier side of metal.  Let's face it, the praise isn't thrown this way on accident, this is a beast of an album.  There is one thing I'd like to address before I even really get down the grit of the review here, and that is that Painkiller is NOT Priest's best album.  Not at all, I'd never claim otherwise.  Sad Wings of Destiny, Sin After Sin, and Stained Class are all better albums from a musical standpoint.  The holy trinity of S albums in the '70s carry a monstrous wealth of musical depth and complexity that Painkiller can only dream of reaching.  The dynamics and vocal acrobatics are completely otherworldly and quite ahead of their time.  I mean really, how many straight up heavy metal bands, that can still be classified as such by today's standards, were there in the mid '70s?  Priest wasn't only in a league of their own, but their seminal works of the time still  hold up today as absolute milestones of songwriting.  Painkiller can't claim any of those technical landmarks as its own, not at all.  It's nothing but big stupid speed metal riffs and mindless double bass.  But honestly, given the choice, I'll pick Painkiller every single time, without even hesitating.

Perhaps this makes me a dullard, but god damn I'd rather hang out with the cavemen than the physics professors if this is how they party.  This album is a perfect example for dissecting the difference between an album being "the best" and "my favorite".  Some examples, like Megadeth's Rust in Peace, are both my favorite and what I would also consider the band's best work.  But Priest is different, they completely fucking nailed it early on and only got dumber as time went on.  This, to me, seems to be their zenith.  This is the perfect combination of retarded silliness, the leather and rock n' roll attitude of their '80s era, and the modernization of their music with heavier, faster songs and a much more aggressive approach.  I mean look at the album cover.  That ridiculous image right there sums up this whole album perfectly.  It looks like Silver Surfer finally got his wings and then celebrated by stealing Wheel Gator from Sigma's Fortress.  If that one-two punch of nerd references was lost on you, I'm sure you can still just look at the damn thing and see how over the top and silly looking it is.  It's the perfect visual representation of what you'll find underneath.

The album begins with the title track, which probably still, after all these years, ranks as my #1 most favorite metal song of all time, across all subgenres.  There's nothing wrong with it, this is Judas Priest working out some immeasurable amount of pent up anger and aggression, and the addition of drummer Scott Travis shows its merits right away as the album begins with a moderately short drum solo.  It's fast, it's pounding, it's double bass out the wazoo, and it shows what Priest is now capable of with this young fellow behind the  kit instead of the droning, mustachioed kiddie fiddler of Dave Holland.  Once the song itself picks up, Rob Halford also shows off his pipes in a way he hasn't done since the glory days of those magical three S albums I mentioned earlier.  Some of the passages he belts out are amongst the most heartfelt and agonized of his career, you can really tell he's giving it his all on this record.  At not one single moment on the entire album does he sound content or laid back, he is always a snarling, raging beast behind the mic and is determined to scare off all of the infidels in the area.  The title track also contains some of the best soloing that heavy metal has ever witnessed, the legendary Tipton and Downing team are also completely on top of their game here.  They shred like they never have before, pushing themselves to the limit and beyond, which is quite remarkable considering Tipton was well into his 40s at this time. 

With all of the band members pushing themselves so hard and possibly even trying to outdo each other, the whole album carries an inescapable frantic pace.  Even the half ballady track, "A Touch of Evil", carries a sense of urgency unlike anything the band had ever done.  In a way, this is kind of like the Judas Priest counterpart to Anthrax's Persistence of Time, which came out around the same time.  Both albums are the band's darkest and heaviest works to date and were a result of outside factors and tension within the band.  On tour for this album, as we all know, Rob Halford managed to wreck his motorcycle onstage, which somehow acted as a catalyst for him to essentially give the band the finger and walk away, thus ushering in the oft maligned Ripper era of the band.

And again, that tension and aggression shows itself throughout the duration of Painkiller.  "All Guns Blazing" is one of the more violent tracks in their repertoire lyrically, and the title track, "Leather Rebel", and "Metal Meltdown" are all completely balls out speedfests.  "Between the Hammer and the Anvil" and "Night Crawler" are both sheer heavy metal anthems with catchy choruses and huge, hard hitting riffs.  This is abundant in the one element that I always felt the '70s era lacked, fun.  This is one of the most fun albums in heavy metal history, and while this is overblown and idiotic, I never feel like going out on a Friday night and cranking Sad Wings.  This is over the top, headbanging fun and there's no other way I'd rather have it.  This straightforward speed metal is something that Priest apparently completely rocks at, and even though they never really expanded upon the sound found here, it's still an everlasting testament to what makes Painkiller so damn awesome.  It was a glorious one-off in an already glorious career.  The internal strife and pent up frustration with the band members resulted in some of the most high octane music heavy metal as a whole has ever put out, nothing gets the blood pumping quite like throwing on "Metal Meltdown".  It retains their '80s signature of being incredibly infectious while providing the goofy AOR anthems with a much needed shot in the arm. 

And that's what makes this close to being the perfect album in my eyes.  It's a magnificent mixture of everything that made the band so noteworthy up to this point while also keeping it fresh and interesting.  The aggressive style really works with Priest's songwriting skill and Painkiller is absolute proof of it.  I'll be the first to admit, despite my vigorous masturbation, that this is a flawed masterpiece.  The album loses steam at the end, with "One Shot at Glory" not being quite as big, over the top, or anthemic as it wants to be and preceding the kind of disappointing ending with the ballady track really seems to give it a weak back end, but in the context of the entire album it's just a quirk that I don't think brings the album down all that much, if at all.  You'd still bone Marilyn Monroe, regardless of whether or not she's got that mark on her face, and I'd still bone this album, even if it does have that mark on its butt.  I still recommend this to every newcomer who seems interested in metal, to every jaded veteran who for some stupid reason hasn't heard this, to anybody with a pulse who seems to realize music exists, really.  I write love notes to this album weekly, and this time I decided to publish it.

Call me!

RATING - 100%

Monday, September 26, 2011

BITE SIZED: Absu - Abzu

Alright, this album doesn't come out for a few more days and I only just finished through my first listen, but I just have to blurt out right now that this is almost assuredly in my Top 5 for the year.  While Absu (the album) was very good, as is Proscriptor's standard minimum, it was more melodic and less frenzied than the thundering megalith that was Tara.  I'd still certainly recommend it, but it never stuck with me as much as some of their other work.  Now here, the strangely titled Abzu, manages to completely blow Absu out of the water, possibly putting itself in contention for the best Absu album.  I'm not entirely sure I'd rank this over Tara just yet, but it gets rather close in terms of attitude and quality.  The execution is far more intense and unrelenting than the previous album, hearkening back to the band's glory day, which is obviously a marvelous thing.  I'd say the most memorable sections appear in "Earth Ripper" and "Ontologically, It Became Time and Space", but nearly the entire album is insane blackythrashy bludgeoning along the same ideas.  Unlike the last album, this one doesn't start to wear itself out, as the running time is only around 35 minutes, and only features six tracks.  My only real complaint would be the final track, the nearly 15 minute long, multi part monstrosity that is "A Song for Ea".  The issue with it is that it really doesn't have to be as long as it is, as the different sections of the song really sound like potential standalone tracks.  The transitions between movements is really clunky and honestly feels like a new track is starting each time anyway, which makes the bloated runtime a bit annoying.  Apart from that stylistic quibble, this is incredible.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Running Wild - Masquerade

Master ride!  Hiding in Bangkok!

For OG fans of mine and long time review readers at the good ol' Encyclopaedia Metallum, y'all may remember that I used to have about six or seven reviews for Running Wild up there, and then them all mysteriously disappearing around the time Rolf decided to hang up his robe. What had happened was that I decided to review each and every album in a tribute to my favorite band, and in reading my own reviews, I decided they all sucked and just deleted them instead. Well two years later here, I'm finally getting around to making good on my promise. And instead of some long winded series like I had planned, spanning their career chronologically, I once again decided against my initial wishes and instead figured it'd be best to just do them in whichever order comes to me.

Now that my self referential, expository masturbation is out of the way, we're gonna start our journey with one of the more controversial albums in Running Wild's catalogue, 1995's, Masquerade. If any average listener were to explore the vast, wonderful backlog of the German speed metallers' exploits, they might be hard pressed to explain why this album is such a big deal to so may fans of the band. Well for some reason, a few folks (idiots) seem to feel like this is the album where they fell off the wagon and began to stagnate. There aren't enough words in the English language to accurately express how much I disagree with that sentiment. One reason I've been given is that this album marked the precise point they ran out of ideas and just started ripping themselves off senselessly. The truth of the matter behind that is that this is simply a continuation of the style they were playing on Black Hand Inn, which was a continuation of Pile of Skulls, which was a continuation of Blazon Stone, et cetera and so forth. Running Wild had this amazing ability to write albums that didn't sound too different from one album to the next, but worlds apart if you look back a mere three or four albums. They were always changing, ever evolving, and this is one of the traits that made them such a special band. Why this particular album catches shit for doing what literally each and every album before it had done, I'll never understand.

Master ride! Evil is dumb!

So to counteract my claim of logical continuation, this is also the album where Rolf starts reaching back and combining past efforts with his new ambitions. For example, tracks like "Soleil Royal", "Black Soul", and "Wheel of Doom" could have easily fit on Black Hand Inn with their similar riffing ideas and slight power metal tint at times, whereas "Men in Black", "Demonized", and "Rebel at Heart" carry a more hard rocking and traditional heavy metal bent than the others, sounding akin so something that wouldn't be out of place on Blazon Stone, and still we have tracks like "Underworld", "Lions of the Sea", and "Masquerade" that are straight up speed metal through and through and really would have sounded right at home on Pile of Skulls. So yes, I can concede that Masquerade explores less new territory than previous efforts, but I counter that it's a beautiful amalgam of what made the last three albums, (and really, their entire 90s era) so great, while still pushing forwards into new territories.

Really, every trademark of Rolf and crew are still just as mighty as ever, no matter what people may try to tell you. They lyrical concept is a bit different than what fans may suspect, as this album kicks off a trilogy of "concept" albums, so there's less piracy and history here in favor of some obscenely loose concept of rich people being evil and controlled by Satan or something. Really, nobody knows what the hell the idea is, but there's supposed to be one here, and if my little between-paragraph gimmick hasn't been clue enough, Rolf's hilarious accent doesn't make things a whole lot easier. I've listened to each and every Running Wild album more times than I care to recount, and there are still several, several verses and passages I don't know the lyrics to simply because his voice, despite a great gruff delivery with a powerful sense of melody, carries such a mangled understanding of how to pronounce damn near anything in English that it's fairly close to impossible to decipher what the hell he's saying most of the time. This is just one of those bits of character that really makes the band so legendary, if you ask me. Nobody can imitate Rolf's voice nor his unique enunciation, it belongs to THIS band and no other.

Master ride! Trees in the night!

And speaking of which, this is indeed a band, and not just Rolf + cronies. I've alluded to the contrary in the past, but the supporting cast always does bring their own little bit of flavor to each new record. The long, melodious bass passages vanished with Jens Becker, and the drumming has gotten considerably more intense since the mighty Jorg Michael took his place behind the kit. This is the first album where the lineup did not change in anyway from the previous album, so perhaps that's another reason certain fools seem to feel the band started stagnating around this time. Just because there was no new member to inject his personality into doesn't necessarily mean that they all just got content with where they were and decided to churn out an album just like the previous because that's what they're used to. Black Hand Inn was and remains the closest to power metal Running Wild ever got, in my eyes. On Masquerade, there's a much stronger traditional heavy metal presence. There's much less double bass insanity, and much more fist pumping, anthemic choruses with huge, punchy riffs. The trademark tremolo melodies are here in spades and every bit as upbeat and catchy as they have been ever since Port Royal shoved them to the forefront. On the whole, the entire atmosphere of this album is much darker than pretty much anything they'd done apart from their debut up to this point, with a much more aggressive pace than before. Many of these songs focus on the idea of evil and its many forms, and while this isn't dripping with the malice and occult of their first two records, it contains some of the most overtly vicious venom they've ever come to spit.

I will admit that the album slows down a bit too much when the band takes their foot off the gas on tracks like "Demonized" and "Rebel at Heart", which are still good songs, but don't much fit with the high energy tempo of the rest of the album. I've always found this to be Running Wild's Achilles heel, to be honest. The tracks that are less speed metal and more traditional/hard rock never seem to be as captivating, regardless of how awesome Rolf makes the chorus (like "Rebel at Heart"). It's really only a small bump in the grand scheme of things, fortunately. I can't help but feel like the popular opinion of this being the band's turning point is completely and utterly wrong. Every element that made the band special is still abundantly clear and the biggest difference between Masquerade and the fan favorite of Black Hand Inn is that the former is more direct and less epic. Whatever story is being told here takes a back seat to a collection of hard hitting and exceptionally catchy heavy/speed metal, and that's exactly what Running Wild is best at. I wouldn't change a thing.

Master ride! Punish the Hebrew rite!

RATING - 91%

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Diamond Plate - Generation Why?


I've made some extremely bold claims in the past in regards to this band.  I've said that Diamond Plate deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Warbringer, Toxic Holocaust, Municipal Waste, and other big name thrash acts of the 21st century.  I've compared them to legends like Megadeth, Exodus, and Overkill.  I've declared their live show not only the best for a band as young as them, but among the best thrash performances imaginable. And possibly boldest of all, I declared them the unequivocal, indisputably best thrash band of the decade.  All this before they were even signed or had a full length album out.  Well since my last published review for the Relativity EP, Earache Records realized the potential the young trio possessed and snatched them up, finally giving my hometown prodigies the recognition and opportunity they so deserved.  And with this, their first full length album, Generation Why?, we can finally see what the band has matured into.

And frankly.... I'm not all that sure I like it that much.

I'm gonna review this in a slightly different way than usual, as I'm gonna give a whole journey, as opposed to simply my view on the album at hand.  I feel like there was more at stake for me here, this isn't as big of a disappointment as say, Nostradamus. And while that album features the dying whimpers of not only one of my personal favorite bands and also absolute legends of heavy metal, I wasn't there when Judas Priest started.  I didn't see Priest open for some legendary band and blow them away in the process, I didn't push an online praise campaign for them and yell louder than a jet engine about how badly they need to be signed and exposed.  I didn't see them in the early stages and witness their songwriting grow and evolve.  That's why this album is such a soul crusher for me, since I was around since relatively near the beginning, watching Diamond Plate open for Destruction and give the stalwart thrash legends a run for their money.  I was there when they debuted "Relativity", I immediately bought the EP when it was first made available and the only reason I don't own their first demo is because a buddy of mine bought the last copy.  I ranked them as the absolute, 100%, all around best thrash band making music in the 00s.  This was my pony, I was gonna ride this wagon all the way to superstardom and beam because I was there when they were still relative nobodies.  Earache signs them, they get a full length out, I honestly, seriously, feel extremely proud of these guys.  They've come a long way, and I feel good knowing that I helped them get where they are.

But with all of that said, I'm severely disappointed with the end result of this arduous process.  I'd like to consider myself "the average fan" when it comes to metal.  I'm not in a band, I'm barely a musician, I write about it as a hobby, I'm no better than Joe Schmoe McThrashypants in the grand scheme of things.  As the average fan, the thing I loved the most about Diamond Plate was their youthful energy and unbridled fury that manifested itself through layers of professionalism and finesse.  They were truly a unique beast.  I loved the aggression, the speed, the energy, the anger and disillusionment with the state of the world.  Everything shone through in their music, and it was the perfect representation of a youth brought up by the same shit with which I was brought up.  The age of the internet, unpopular, senseless wars, rampant corruption, just shit that doesn't matter and has taken away the human element of social interaction.  All the big Cold War and Reaganomics themes of the 80s thrash is still in effect in just a different form nowadays, and Diamond Plate realized that and made music to match.  They were confused and angry, and they only knew one way to express the pent up frustration.

But where is that now?  Where is that energy?  The rage, frustration, and anger?  It's all gone, it's now a shell of what it once was.  The fire of youth, the burning passion for this music has been put out seems, the youthful energy I loved so much has been replaced with a cold, unfeeling calculation.  Generation Why? feels manufactured in almost every way, instead of entering the studio with a dream of an album and a strong heart, the band approached the writing/recording process with a lab coat and tweezers.  I don't feel the soul in here anymore.  I think part of the blame falls on Neil Kernon's production.  When it was announced that he'd be producing, I was stoked for the band.  That opportunity they deserved so much was being given to them just like I'd hoped.  They got signed to a major label and were given a chance to work with one of the biggest names in the game right from the get go.  The one thing I seemed to forget was that Kernon is a lot like Andy Sneap in the sense that he specializes in a very sterile brand of production that many decry as one of the main offenders of the "loudness war".  And really, I finally understand how the old fogey thrashers feel when they bitch about how lifeless and sterile the production is for these new bands.  Diamond Plate always had pretty clean production, but here it is completely crystal clear and squeaky clean, there's no real aggression anymore.  It's all been replaced with anger from a bottle clearly labeled "rage" and just the exact right amount according to the measurements taken before recording was poured into the big DP vat.  The production adds to the whole package that makes this, in the end, sound like Trivium.

Really, think about it.  Approach this album with the mindset that this is the new Trivium album and you could easily fool yourself.  There are these strange metalcore tendencies thrown in all over the place that were never present on earlier recordings.  There are tons of chugging parts that would usually be considered "thrash breaks" or "mosh parts" in the context of a thrash song, but in conjunction with the vocal style and overall simplifying of what the band had been previously doing, it's approached more like a traditional metalcore breakdown.  The vocal style is something that had been a point of contention for a lot of people, and a quibble so severe that many people had cited them as the sole feature keeping them away from the band.  Jon has always had a really hoarse shout, and most (myself included) attributed it to his young age and figured he would grow into a more healthy bark as time went on.  Hell, we've all heard the barely pubescent James Hetfield shouting his adorable little peach fuzzed lungs out on early Metallica records and it was just part of their character.  But here it's only deteriorated, his voice has never improved.  I have a friend who refers to the vocals as "whisper shouts" and I can kind of understand what he's saying when he says that.  They're very hoarse and lacking in power, and unfortunately, remind me of Matt Heafy, once again reaffirming my Trivium comparison.

I also mentioned the oversimplifying of the songs earlier, and this is a HUGE problem to me.  Fans of the Relativity EP will certainly notice a few things upon first listen.  One is that the track "Relativity" is shorter, and the other is that "At the Mountains of Madness", the band's trademark song, is longer.  Both of these are for the wrong reasons.  "Relativity" is shorter because they cut out the thrash break (a legit, awesome, stomping, Anthrax-ish thrash break) and cut right to the fast section after the second chorus.  Seriously?  Yeah it was just a variation of the main riff but it was an awesome variation.  It added a bit of diversity to an already lengthy track that could easily use it.  It was one of those small things that I realized Diamond Plate was exceptionally good at, and that was writing one riff and finding several unique ways to play it, keeping it interesting.  A prime example would be "Criminal Justice", which spends roughly the first minute playing the same idea but with different back beats and rhythmic choices in between the defining chords.  If you'd like to actually hear what I'm talking about, you'll have to find a way to buy Relativity because for some reason, "Criminal Justice", despite being a fan favorite and their most masterful blend of intensity with melody, is not included on this fucking album.  I asked Konrad about this and he shrugged and said "It's something we'll bust out live occasionally for the old fans who have the EP, but for the most part 'out with the old and in with the new'".  Oh, and remember that awesome double bass passage after the first chorus in "Relativity" that I raved about in my review for that EP?  That's gone too, replaced with an alternating triplet and gallop pattern, totally sapping the energy out of that particular section.  "At the Mountains of Madness" has been raped as well.  Using simple problem solving skills, one could assume that because "Relativity" is shorter due to a section being cut out, then this song should be longer due to them adding something, correct?  Wrong again, jackass.  "At the Mountains of Madness" has just been slowed down to the point of once again sapping all of the energy out of it.  Where's that Lovecraftian insanity?  Fucking gone down the commercial drain in order to satiate some idiot exec or something, hell if I know.  It's only some thirty seconds longer, but you'd be amazed how much difference it makes when the entire song is a whole 15% slower.  That energy I loved so much... replaced with this completely calculated and soulless rendition of a track that once carried the fire of Olympian gods.  It's saddening to the point of being nearly repulsive.  What the fuck happened, Diamond Plate?  Did the major label force you to do this?  Surely this couldn't be the direction you were hoping for?

Apart from the butchering of old favorites, there are indeed a couple new tracks.  They've been playing "Waste of Life" since before "Relativity" was even written, so OG fans should recognize that one at the very least.  It ends up as filler on this album though, as even after listening to this countless times I still manage to forget it's even featured on here.  "Pull the Trigger" and "Tomb with a View" were both played live once or twice before this was recorded, so it's another one old school fans should at least halfway recognize, it's just unfortunate that they fit in with their new idea of manufactured aggression.  They both just kind of plod along with only a few standout sections between them.  So this leaves the only fully new tracks to be "Generation Why?", "Fool's Paradise", "More than Words", and "Empire Tomorrow".  "More than Words" is a simple instrumental interlude with some nice soloing and a very Nevermore-ish riff for a backbone, not much to sneeze at but I guess it serves its purpose.  The title track also gives me a huge Nevermore vibe, particularly with that opening riff.  Yes, it's thrashy, but it's also very "modern" in the derogatory sense.  There's no passion here, it's like this riff was designed to sound cool, so we will input the proper reflexes into our synapses and play that riff exactly as calculated or whatever.  I just can't get over how soulless and unfeeling this is in comparison to the fire of their previous recordings.  These kids are younger than I, and I'm barely old enough to drink in the US.  They're young, dumb, and full of cum, as they say.  Where is the youthful swagger that so perfectly intertwines with the aggression and unbridled intensity of thrash?  I can surely tell you where it isn't, and that's on "Fool's Paradise".  That sounds like a warm up song, this can't be the finished product, not if there's any real passion left in these guys.  They seriously chose a plodding, boring, half assed track like that over "Criminal Justice"?  I don't fucking understand the thought process that went behind this album, I really don't.  I guess "Empire Tomorrow" is part of this horrible disappointment as well, but it really doesn't stand out at all apart from the bass solo which is still pretty hard to care about at this point and the fact that the closing melody reminds me exactly of "The Heart Collector" from, once again you guessed it, Nevermore.

Actually, I know the mindset behind recording this.  It was heaviness, that had to have been the band's endgame here.  They've adopted the (frankly silly) slogan of "Why so heavy?", and promoted every bit of news about this album using the words "heavy" or "tight".  They wanted to make one of the heaviest thrash albums imaginable, and I can appreciate a goal like that.  The problem is that they lack the passion to undertake such a monumental task nowadays.  I really, really want to blame Earache for this, as all of my complaints manifested themselves either directly leading up to their signing and afterwards.  You want to make something more brutal than Slaughter in the Vatican or Tapping the Vein?  I applaud you for wanting to, but with what you're giving me, I can tell you that it will never happen.  The production is too weak and crisp, the songs lack energy and passion, the chugging parts all come off as plodding instead of crushing, just... everything is wrong.... This was supposed to be their magnum opus, their breakthrough into the consciousness of thousands more metalheads, and what they've delivered is a stale, sterile, manufactured disappointment.  This isn't a case of "Yeah well they're popular now so they suck", not in the slightest.  People always like to brag about their pet bands that woulda coulda shoulda been huge, and here's an instance where it's actually happening.  With a major label backing and their still phenomenal live show, Diamond Plate is still poised to make a worthy name for themselves, and I'm still happy for them.  But as a fan, I just can't get over how massively uncool Generation Why? is.

It's hard for me to really put into words why this is such a bitter letdown for me, I realize I keep using the same seven words to describe everything but I'm really at a loss for anything more complex that what I've been saying.  Listen for yourself.  I still obviously support the band and encourage everybody to do the same, because I can attest that these songs are all great when played live, but on record they completely fail to grab me in any way.  It's modern thrash by numbers with a slightly metalcore spirit in parts and bad vocals.  Even though I've done virtually nothing but tear this apart, I still suggest at least giving it a try.

Also, Konrad, you promised me the third track was going to be called "Napalm Satan".  You lied to me.

RATING - 47%

UPDATE: I have to point out a mistake of mine here, as I never realized until now that the final track, "Empire Tomorrow" is actually an older song as well, originally titled "The Omega Revelation".  I attribute me not realizing to the fact that I only saw them perform it live once or twice, and even at the time I thought it was underwhelming for what they usually write.  So my opinion hasn't changed, I just want to get my history right.