Friday, November 28, 2014

JERKING THE CIRCLE Vol V: Megadeth - Endgame

A Tale of Two Songs

One of the more visible falls from grace in metal history undoubtedly has to be that of Megadeth.  Everybody knows their history, everybody knows the relation to Metallica, everybody knows what I think of them (first five albums are great, Youthanasia is a decent hard rock album, everything else sucks), and everybody for the most part seems to agree.  It's just generally accepted that Megadeth has been shit since at least 1992.  It's really not even worth talking about, because it's all been talked to death.  That's why I'm sitting here, rocking out to Rust in Peace, with a blank document on my computer screen.  God dammit, I love their 1990 album more than almost everything, but it's so hard to review at this point.  Everybody has the same opinion!  Part of me wished they had at least one good album after Countdown to Extinction because then it'd at least make their career somewhat interesting instead of predictable and sad.

But BH!  There is a good album in the last two thirds of their career!  You're completely forgetting about Endgame!


No I'm not.  Endgame sucks, and you're all insane for not realizing it.  Really, this album is just an exercise is the exact kind of subliminal manipulation that Dave spends so much time ironically shouting at the top of his lungs about.  The only thing Endgame does well is order the tracklisting in such a way that you get tricked into thinking it's great.

What do I mean?  Well, ask anybody what their favorite song on this album is.  90% of the time it's "This Day We Fight", the other 10% says "Headcrusher".  There's a reason for this, because they're positioned in such a way, surrounded by exactly the right amounts of boring, half hearted bullshit, that they managed to stand above the crowd.  They're very good songs, the former of which is legitimately probably one of my top ten favorite Megadeth songs.  It's just does everything right, it's the exact kind of violent aggression intertwined with masterful guitar playing that made Rust in Peace such a timeless classic.  It never lets up, it starts with its foot on the gas and just plows through the listeners like zombies in a shopping mall.  The chorus deserves special mention for being so bloody ear catching.  The whole song is a rallying cry, a huge, pissed off anthem to remind everybody why Megadeth is a band worth listening to.  "Headcrusher" is no different, with a pummeling main riff and ferocious vocal patterns that just emanate bile and fire.  It's hard not to pump your fist and bang your head during "DEEEEATH BY THE HEEEEEADCRUSHA".  Both of these songs are exactly what made the band so fucking good in the 80s (yes Rust in Peace is an 80s album, the 80s ended in 1992).

But here's the secret, they're the -only- two good songs on the entire album.  It's so easy to miss because the beginning is so good that you find yourself just riding a high until "Headcrusher" comes in late, but it's true.  You see, Dave, for all the cross eyed tongue waggling lunacy, really can manage to be smart sometimes.  This is an example of his brilliance, because the beginning of the album emulates a previous classic in So Far, So Good, So What?, with "Dialectic Chaos" and "This Day We Fight" perfectly mirroring "Into the Lungs of Hell" and "Set the World Afire".  The intro tracks are both hugely melodic and triumphant sounding shredfests, with only basic riffs being made up for with instantly memorable Van Halen leads and mindbending fretboard theatrics.  The following songs are both big crowd rousing numbers with massive choruses and infectious-yet-punishing riffage.  At this point, after you just sat through albums with such timeless classics as "A Tout le Monde", "Of Mice and Men" and "Moto Psycho", you'll hear that one-two punch of an introduction and promptly pass out due to all of the blood rushing to your reproductive organs.  It's easy to forget that "44 Minutes" is the exact same awkward radio rock bullshit that plagued their 90s era, and it's forgivable to not notice that "Bite the Hand that Feeds" is almost a total rewrite of "Skin O' My Teeth" and "Bodies" is just "Symphony of Destruction" again.  It's okay to immediately erase the embarassingly terrible half-ballad of "The Hardest Part of Letting Go... Sealed with a Kiss" from your memory because just as soon as you start wondering what the fuck it was, "Headcrusher" starts and makes you headbang yourself into a concussive state of amnesia.

That's really what makes up the entire album.  Everything is either a blatant copying of a previous song that people already liked or it's just a new terrible idea that Dave has been unsuccessfully trying so fucking hard to make us like for a decade at the time of release.  I mean let's be real here, who really enjoys the spoken word crap and tinfoil chewing nonsense that Dave spends half of the title track shouting about?  Who really likes the awkward vocal cadences that have plagued the band ever since the early 90s?  Who thought "Captive Honour" was so good that we needed to hear it again with a new title?  I realize that a lot of the copied songs are songs from Countdown to Extinction, an album I openly enjoy the everloving shit out of despite its very obvious flaws.  The difference really comes down to how fresh the songs feel, and Endgame just can't even compare outside of the two obvious songs.  Countdown may have been an obvious attempt at cashing in on Metallica's new direction (and let's not pretend that "This Day We Fight" and "Headcrusher" aren't direct responses to the heavy throwback songs on Death Magnetic, but I really just can't bear to preach that obvious storyline any longer), but it was fun and exciting.  "The Right to Go Insane" just feels like a reheated leftover, and "1,320" sounds like a paint-by-numbers how-to guide in regards to being just mediocre enough to carry the momentum that a previously great track can generate.  Dave's snarl is just as lazy and tired as it has been for nearly two decades, excepting the two I keep namedropping.  In fact, I'm really beginning to suspect that a different, better band actually wrote those two, because holy shit it just makes no sense that he can crap out those two masterpieces in the middle of an album full of rehashed speed rock in the middle of a streak of albums that range from hilariously bad to painfully mediocre.

There are just only so many times I can say the same thing, so I'll wrap it up here.  "This Day We Fight" and "Headcrusher" are two phenomenal songs that absolutely deserve all the praise they've been getting, but the rest of the album contains nothing but bad reimaginings of better songs from their divisive transitional era.  I'm aware that everybody's taste is different, and maybe the majority of people really do just think "1,320" is really just that much better than "High Speed Dirt", but personally I'll never buy it.  Dave got a few things right by recognizing the best tracks and releasing one as a single and the other as the opening song, and also only focusing on politics for about half the songs instead of all of them.  But that's it, everything else is just as bad as they've always been and I feel like I'm the one sober guy staring at the Emperor's naked asshole.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Job for a Cowboy - Sun Eater

Fvn Eater

I find it so odd that a band that pretty much accidentally helped invent an entire subgenre of metal managed to then follow up that monumentally influential EP (Doom, for the younger than young of you out there) with release after release of blatant trend hopping.  I'm gonna come clean here, I can fairly safely say that I actually do like Job for a Cowboy, but I say that with the caveat that it's mostly due to their 2009 effort, Ruination.  To me, that's the one time where the trend they landed on managed to be one they were really, really good at.  Doom helped deathcore get its start, and it's mostly below average with a couple cool spots here and there, while Genesis saw them plunge headlong into complete, 100% unambiguous death metal, but at the same time saw them completely hollow and bland and not at all worth listening to.  Ruination is when they decided to get on the tech death bandwagon, and somehow they surprised the shit out of me by actually doing it quite well.  That whole album is full of riff after riff, constantly pummeling you from all directions, coupled with great songwriting and impressive instrumental performances all around.  Demonocracy was more of the same, but with weaker songwriting, but overall it's a decent, listenable album.

I ran through that to illustrate why 2014's Sun Eater was met with a collective eyeroll by so many people who are either non-fans or moderate fence sitters like me.  Once again, for the fourth time, they've undergone a drastic shift in style, and for the fourth time, it didn't seem natural.  There's almost never any flickers of what's to come to be found on any given Job for a Cowboy album, it's always just a really jarring transition to whatever happens to be popular at the time.  One time, sure.  Two times, okay, coincidence, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt.  But three or four times?  Come on man, how often do you expect to fool me?

In the end, that's really not all that important.  The end result is all that matters, right?  Well sure, but it's undoubtedly frustrating and is always a big black cloud looming over everything they touch.  I listen to Sun Eater and I just know in the back of my mind that this was done with scientific precision instead of artistic passion, and that's worrisome.  But again, let's try to push that aside, what does the music itself offer us?


Fucking dammit the style they tried to emulate this time is wanky prog death in the vein of Beyond Creation and The Faceless's newest direction, with touches of Between the Buried and Me for good measure.  Job for a Cowboy got the songwriting prowess down pat when they were trying to cram as many notes into any given song as possible, and Sun Eater proves that when they give songs space and try to go for more ethereal, twisted atmosphere, they just fall flat.  It's weird, because they're clearly still trying to throw in a bazillion notes, but it comes of as awkward and confused this time around.  The rhythm section is basically tweaking on meth, as the drums never slow down, even during the atmospheric parts, and the bass is... *ugh*, the bass is identical to what you'd find on a Beyond Creation album.  It's Overkill-level loud, very clear and broowwwdowdwooow.  Just like the Quebecois noodlers, the bass is super distracting and instead of complementing the guitars in any way, whether it be through syncopation or counterpoint or whatever, it just feels like it's desperately trying to elbow its way past the rest of the band into the spotlight.

I can give the album some credit for getting better as it goes along, since the first side is utterly forgettable before giving way to some shining moments in the back stretch.  "Encircled by Mirrors" and "Buried Monuments" both have some very standout guitar theatrics, to the point where they manage to overshadow the directionless noodling that fills the rest of the runtime.  "A Global Shift" definitely deserves a mention as well for being the only song not to fuck around with long instrumental passages where the drummer goes apeshit everywhere except for the snare and cymbals, giving the illusion that the pace is slower and more open.  Nah, that song throws all that progressive bullshit to the wind and just shreds the fuck out like Ruination did five years prior.  This is what Job for a Cowboy has already proven to be their strength, and they absolutely should just stick to songs like this.  Because "A Global Shift"?  This song works.  Absolutely worth listening to.

But of course, the rest of the album doesn't do that.  They're following in the footsteps of The Faceless with this one, as the longer, spacier passages ring several bells that ring strikingly similar to the likes of Opeth, albeit without the clean guitars or vocals.  Yeah, Sun Eater keeps it dirty and gritty, never succumbing to the allure of pleasant clean vocals or haunting acoustic passages.  Normally I'd praise a band for that, especially this one, since that illustrates that they're not trying to step outside of their bounds and they know exactly what they can and can't do.  But hell, I wish they'd just gone for it.  I mean why not, right?  That's the direction they're leaning, and we all know that by the next album they'll be playing straight up Dark Descent style dissonant gurgly jangledeath so it's not like they're ever going to expand upon this idea.  But really, the frustrating part isn't that the band didn't explore the ideas they were flirting with, it's mostly that they bothered with it at all.  I can compare this to plenty of bands but all roads lead to Beyond Creation.  I feel like The Aura was playing in constant loop in their rehearsal room, because it's such a dead ringer for that album.  It's a faceless clone of an album in a style that's been gaining traction, and once again Job for a Cowboy cements themselves firmly in the middle of the pack, not doing anything to stand out.

I've used a lot of words to basically say the same thing over and over (which in a way is kind of indicative of this album in the first place), but it's really the truth.  When you think of wanky prog death with Jaco Pastorious's zombie on bass, this is the exact thing you think of.  The songwriting never brings the songs over the edge, everything lurks right on the surface but never actually breaks through and makes itself known.  It's just anther fish in a school, another faceless nothing that wouldn't stand out at all if it weren't for the name attached to it.  For fans of Beyond Creation and The Faceless, this is right up your alley, you'll love it.  The rest of us?  Not so much.  A bunch of samey sounding proggy doodles doesn't make for a good time.  You know how whenever you see a band live, there's almost always at least one song that you just tune out for?  Somewhere in the middle of apparently every death metal band ever's set, there will be a song that the crowd just kinda checks out for.  Maybe the band likes it because it's a break from more demanding stuff, or they had a lot of fun writing/playing it, but it just doesn't connect with anybody in the audience.  This album is that song eight times.

RATING - 33%

Sunday, November 9, 2014

JERKING THE CIRCLE Vol IV: Heaven and Hell - The Devil You Know

Yeah I can't think of a title

This is a review I've been both dreading and dying to write.  It's weird to think that this album five years old at this point and I could very well be writing this for people who weren't metal fans when it was released, so if you fall into that category, please make sure you understand: this was the absolute biggest fucking deal in the universe when it dropped in 2009.  Not only was there all the drama surrounding the band's mere name at the time (I saw this lineup twice and still steadfastly refer to them as "Black Sabbath concerts" and I'll never, ever, ever back down from that), but pretty much all four guys in the band had done precisely nothing of note in eons.  This situation would stick most bands under these circumstances as "has beens", and no matter how true that may have been, Dio and Iommi are special.  They're both grandfathers of heavy metal, elder statesmen of an entire genre of music that had grown so much since they were young.  I don't mean to leave Geezer out of the equation since he's a massive part of Sabbath's sound, and believe me when I say that he and Vinny were just as hyped up as the two main men, but the thought of Ronnie James Dio and Tony Iommi collaborating again for the first time in nearly two decades just sent generations of metal fans slipping off their chairs.

And this is where the deification stops from me, and where the inspiration for picking up the Jerking the Circle series again begins.  I'm sorry guys, The Devil You Know is lame and boring.

This is an album that's more... I dunno, inspirational or admirable than actually any good.  See, it was great to see these shambling geriatrics wheelchair themselves on stage and then just rock the fuck out like they were in their 30s again, and it was so refreshing to see that the classic icons of the genre still gave enough of a shit about the music they helped create to continue performing and writing it.  The problem lies in the fact that, barring the flukey Dehumanizer (which in itself is only half great anyway, but I'll explain that in time here), nobody in the band had really made anything worth listening to since the early 80s.  Dio started on an incredible streak, farting out classic albums left and right with Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and his solo band in the 70s and 80s, and Sabbath was phenomenal in the 70s before a slight dip and resurfacing in the early 80s when Dio joined the fold, but after The Mob Rules, they just turned to churning out dull, skippable albums that weird people will swear up and down are among their best (you will never, ever convince me that Tony Martin is better than Dio or that The Headless Cross is better than Sabbath Bloody Sabbath). 

Basically all that history lesson was meant for was to illustrate something that most people never seem to acknowledge; Iommi/Dio hadn't touched anything other than skippable crap for almost 25 solid years before The Devil You Know. So in all honesty, I really shouldn't have been surprised that this album does next to nothing for me.  It's almost 54 minutes long but it feels like it's almost two hours before the album ends.  Most of Tony's good riffs had been used up by The Mob Rules, and no matter how good he was in his prime, this is an everlasting testament to the fact that he's just not as creative or fresh with his songwriting as he used to be.  The album is inspirational in its attitude, but not in its execution, and as a result there are a whopping six plodding snoozefests to start the album off on the worst foot possible.  I can concede that "Bible Black" has a good chorus and the verse riff of "Double the Pain" manages to get the blood moving, and I adore the main riff to "Fear", but that's three riffs across six songs that elicit any emotion out of me other than overwhelming apathy.  That's a frickin' terrible batting average.  It's sort of like Sammy Sosa coming out of retirement and leading the league in strikeouts while everybody showers him in awards and adulation because once upon a time he was super good and now here he is doing that thing again (let's just pretend the cork and the steroids never happened for the sake of argument, I'm not good at baseball dammit).

I think the biggest problem stems from the fact that the album's single focus is skull squeezing heaviness, which it does admittedly achieve to an extent with an absolutely monstrous guitar tone, but it's overall ineffective because the riffs just never go anywhere.  It's so clearly the result of four old men gathering around and trying to be all wise and weathered and whatever other positive synonyms you can think of for "so old you can see through their skin", and it just comes off like there's no vigor anywhere to be found.  Like 85% of the album lumbers around at this leisurely lurch, like an ice giant out for a stroll.  There's so little energy here, songs like "Breaking Into Heaven" and "Rock and Roll Angel" meander around for upwards of seventy six minutes with no fire or passion behind them.  Almost the entire album is full of these dull chugging exercises that have to be unbelievably boring to play on stage.  I know what they're going for, this is supposed to be pure, oppressive doom metal, full of apocalyptic dread and bone shattering crunch, and I suppose they achieve that if you really think about it.

The problem with that is that that's not what Dio does.  Absolutely not, Dio has always been at his best when he's carrying a sense of wonder and grandeur.  Really, think of all the best songs he ever sang on.  "Man on the Silver Mountain", "Die Young", "Falling Off the Edge of the World", "The Last in Line", "Rainbow in the Dark", fuckin' "Stargazer", "Kill the King".  All of those songs have one thing in common, they feel like they're showing you something greater than yourself.  They all have this indescribable sense of magic surrounding them, and they're all  just these huge sounding songs with an almost childlike sense of wonder.  Precisely zero of the best Dio songs (barring the exception in "Heaven and Hell" (and I guess "Sign of the Southern Cross" is really popular too but personally it bores me) are slow and doomy.  None of them feel like a hungover titan sleepily pawing at his alarm clock like "Atom and Evil" does.  Dio doesn't do doom, and that's why the heavier Dio albums suck and the best song on Dehumanizer is "TV Crimes".  You know, the fast one.  He's woefully miscast in this role simply because he's essentially this ancient wizard at this point in time, but his voice was still as powerful as it was during his classic era.  He didn't need to tone down his performance, but the rest of the band did, and so Dio's always immaculate voice rides dull melodies over boring, go-nowhere plod riffs.

That's not to say the whole album is bad, it's just fundamentally flawed.  There are two uptempo songs to be found in "Eating the Cannibals" and "Neverwhere", and unsurprisingly they're the best songs on the album by a long shot.  That's what Dio does best, he requires some semblance of energy behind him in order for him to reach his full potential.  "Bible Black" may be heavy and dark, but it's not energetic, and that's why the vocals fall flat when put into the whole unit.  It's so sad to say but really every member of the band brings largely an inconsequential performance to the table.  Vinny Appice plays the most standard timekeeping beats imaginable with almost no fills to speak of, Geezer has very few of his famous runs (oddly enough, the two do get some brief moments of entertaining  showboating in the background during "Bible Black" and essentially nowhere else), Iommi pens a whopping seven or eight good riffs across ten songs, and Dio stands out purely because his voice is so recognizable.  If there was a different personnel behind this album, I feel like the metal fandom as a whole would give less than a single shit about it.  The songs themselves have moments of past brilliance scattered here and there but for the most part they're devoid of enjoyment, replaced instead with an abundance of fillery non-riffs that go nowhere.

Maybe I'm wrong for wishing this album is something that it wasn't, but to be fair, isn't that the reason we don't like... well, anything?  How many times are you caught telling yourself "Well this album does exactly what I want it to do, it ticks all the boxes, buuuuuut it's lame"?  Never.  That's why the only songs worth listening to are "Eating the Cannibals" and "Neverwhere" for the heightened pace and thus thicker groove, and "Bible Black" for just being the only song to really get the formula they're going for right.  I still recommend listening to it because it's a curious little oddity at the tail end of a couple legendary careers, and the swansong of one of metal's greatest faces, and also because everybody but me seems to love it so chances are you will too.  For me?  It just reinforces my belief that Dio/Iommi/Geezer all have about thirty solid years of forgettable crap going on right now as long as you grant an exception to Dehumanizer