Monday, September 28, 2020
I'm not making the boat rudder joke
I've recently learned about the theory that the kind of music you hate the most tends to actually be superficially similar to the kind you love the most. Your natural assumption would be that somebody's least favorite style of music is the one the most opposite to their favorite, but ask any outlaw country fan what they think of Florida Georgia Line, or any jazz fan what they think of Kenny G's schlock. Most pertinent to this series, ask any underground metalhead in 2005 what the worst genre was and they'd probably say metalcore. The idea is that this is due to a sort of "musical uncanny valley", where you hate what you hate the most because it's almost something you love, but something about it is just too off, too artificial, too wrong to truly be what it is you love, and that gives us a sort of fight-or-flight reaction of visceral disgust. I've been thinking about this a lot as I explore these metalcore bands for this series, and I think Trivium here is the poster child for metal's uncanny valley. I know I spend a lot of time harping on how metalloids are obsessed with aesthetics and reflexively reject bands that don't look the part, and I still think that's true to an extent, but this way of thinking has really helped me to understand why this entire scene got shat on by the underground for so long, and Trivium in particular got it real bad. They were an internet punching bag for years and I didn't even really question it. Of course they sucked, I mean come on, have you listened to them?
I didn't start this series with the intention of pointing at maligned releases and just saying "Thing Good, Actually", but it was inevitable that it would happen at least once and I'm just as surprised as you are that Trivium wound up being the lucky winner.
The reason I think Trivium hit that musical uncanny valley more than any of their peers is because holy shit I never realized how 80s these songs are. Seriously! There are loads of things for classic metal fans to enjoy here, mostly in the absolute heaps of influence they took from Metallica and Iron Maiden. The Crusade is obviously their "We're thrash now for real please respect us" album, but Ascendancy is the one I remember being their breakthrough and the one that started all the backlash, and I can see why people had that reaction to it. Sure there are tons of dueling solos and harmonized melodies and bona fide thrash riffs, but there is enough that's just left-of-center enough to feel inauthentic. Something simple is the fact that the album is played in Drop D tuning. For the non musicians, all you really need to know is that dropped tunings simply aren't the approach that most bands take if they're aiming for the sound Trivium was aiming for here. That's more the domain of grunge, nu metal, and, well, metalcore. It's very easy to get huge sounding powerchords that jump around the neck with that top string down a step and it's conducive to writing big fuckin' breakdowns and really fast chug riffs (both of which this album doesn't necessarily shy away from, in fairness). Hearing somebody take that tuning and basically rewrite "Trapped Under Ice" with it just feels different, and even if you don't know or understand all that, your brain picks up on it. The tuning isn't the be-all-end-all wrong part, but it's one element of several that divorces Ascendancy from its roots just enough to feel like some sort of forgery.
But honestly, it's not really an impostor because the music is surprisingly legit. That opening attack of "Rain" is absolutely devastating, "Drowned and Torn Asunder" is genuinely just thrash metal with a beefier low end, "Declaration" sounds like a squadron of machine guns, "A Gunshot to the Head of Trepidation" has a main riff that sports an incredibly infectious hook and transitions into some of the most Maiden melodies that Maiden never wrote. Everywhere I look there's something else I enjoy. My memory told me this had very pedestrian drumming but it's actually mega energetic, and the solos are some of the best the genre ever produced. The sound is great, the songs generally smash (though of course the more melodic ballady songs like "Departure" and "Dying in Your Arms" are incredibly boring and throw a monkey wrench in the album's momentum), hell even the common problem of bands strictly adhering to pop song structures isn't as obvious or irritating this time, even though they pump out a lot of standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-chorus songs regardless. There's enough variety in approach that it doesn't get nearly as tiring as it did with Killswitch. The cliches are still here of course, the choruses are almost uniformly cleanly sung and the most intense part of any given song is the first fifteen seconds, but it feels less dogmatic and more loose here.
However there's an elephant in the room here. I haven't brought up the vocals yet, and that's because "Beefy" Matt Heafy has the absolute worst scream in the scene. His harsh vocals are unbearably inept, to the point where they genuinely hinder my enjoyment to a surprising degree. His cleans are fine, unremarkable but serviceable, but his harsh vocals are leagues below anybody else I've heard so far. They're very hoarse and scratchy, like somebody running their nails down drywall. He sounds like he was moderately thirsty but decided to track every single song in one long take before getting a glass of water. I like to imagine his clean voice is his only real voice, and the screams are just the result of something like that Finnish cough drop commercial where the black metal guy takes a lozenge and then starts singing like Pavarotti. That bit at the end of the second verse of "Pull Harder on the Strings of Your Martyr" where he goes "I'LL BURN YOUR WOLLL" sounds drier than Ben Shapiro's wife. More than anything, Trivium needed to tell Heafy to just stick to guitar while they hired a real vocalist, because he's pretty good at guitar and unbelievably bad at vocals. I know Trivium is still releasing new albums to this day and I hope to god he's either improved or dropped them entirely to focus on clean singing, because god damn I can not stress enough how awful they are. Imagine starting a thrash band and then letting some kid who has never screamed before but was into Terror last summer handle the vocals, because that's not too far off from what we got here.
It's such a shame that the vocals are as bad as they are, because they're really the only element of the album that I actually think sucks. On an instrumental level Ascendancy sits somewhere in the high 70s/low 80s range; not great but it's consistently quite good. But those screams are so prominent and so bad that they seriously shave off like twenty fuckin' percent off the final score for me. Running classic non-extreme metal through a filter of modern melodeath that makes it both heavier and catchier should be easy as hell to do, but the vocal choices they made here just amount to a stake through the heart.
Friday, September 25, 2020
I am not sober enough to think of a title
I'm going to preemptively dock ten points off this score because listening to it several times across the span of a few days is likely going to irreparably fuck up my Spotify recommendations.
Like most bands in this series, I'm mostly totally unfamiliar with Atreyu. I know I hated them before I ever listened to them just because I knew they weren't "true metal" (and correcting that is the whole point of this series) and I remember "Right Side of the Bed" very vaguely from the soundtrack to Burnout 3, but that's all I got. This is likely the blindest blind listen I'm going to cover, because even though I wouldn't call myself all that familiar with Killswitch, I'm almost positive I've heard "A Bid Farewell" more than a handful of times throughout my life. Not so with this one. So because of that, I actually did some research into the band's history before starting this one. And in doing so I came across this hilarious quote from frontman "Howlin'" Alex Varkatzas:
"This is going to sound a little cocky but I’m a singer in a band. I don’t think we fit into any genre. I think we are hard to pin down. When we first started it was a little easier. We were a metallic hardcore band with singing parts. There wasn’t any else like that when we were doing it. People get confused and say ‘you’re a metalcore band’, but we invented metalcore. That may sound cocky but I don’t care. We pre-date Poison The Well and Killswitch Engage and all those bands. I’ve been doing this since I was literally 12 years old."
What kind of coconuts shit is this? For my metal readers, this is like Dark Angel saying they invented thrash metal despite very obviously not doing so while also claiming they didn't fit into any genre despite being the musical lovechild of Kreator and Slayer. For Sobek's sake I started this series with fuckin' Shadows Fall, who formed three years before Atreyu did and released their third album the same year Atreyu released their debut. Yeah it's not apples to apples to compare the two bands but they unquestionably had some fan overlap and there's absolutely no way this pinhead didn't know he was spewing bullshit. Though, in his defense, if any genre was invented by twelve year olds, it's metalcore.
Extramusical nonsense aside, does The Curse hold up, and did I do myself a disservice by ignoring it when it was culturally relevant?
Well that's a hard fuckin' no this time.
Of the entire batch of bands I checked out for this series, Atreyu is by far the worst one. I hate to blow my wad early but here we are. My issue with Killswitch is amplified here to the bazillionth degree. Not only do they constantly reuse songwriting cliches and cause the tracks to bleed together into a totally unmemorable goulash of paint-by-numbers metalcore, but even the good bits of Killswitch are entirely absent. The drummer, "Salty" Brandon Saller, handles the clean vocals with this band, and I want to give them props for that because I simply find singing drummers to be a cool thing on a personal level, but his voice is god damned annoying. "Annoying" is a shitty descriptor, but that's really the purest distillation of what he sounds like. He utilizes the same amateur theater inflection that Killswitch's cleans tend to use, where they sound like they're aiming for something really grand but just end up sounding unbearably corny. He sounds like he delivers every line with his eyes closed and his bottom lip curled like a crying baby, and it comes out sounding very forcefully goofy, like the deepest falsetto in history. Varkatzas's screams somehow come out sounding worse. You know how grunge singers had that weird inflection that made it sound like they always had a soft "r" noise permeating every syllable? (REEEVERN FRLOOOWWWR) Well this guy's screams do the same thing except with a "w" sound. They're this completely monotone mid range scream with every vowel sound replaced with some indistinct "wuh" noise and it's unintentionally hilarious. "Right Side of the Bed" has a quick line around the 1:20 mark that says "all the memories of", and it's delivered like "BWUH BUH BUH BWUH BWAZOWF" and it's absolutely kills me every time. That's what my dad sounds like when making fun of the music I like. Both vocalists seem to have trouble enunciating with any clarity, which seems like an odd thing for a death metal fan to point out but when the cleanly sung line "Have you ever cried so hard?" comes out sounding like "Will you have a pretzel horn?" it becomes a really funny problem. It's like they both have enormous tongues. Or they're Seth Green's brother in Rat Race.
I spent so much time on the vocals because that's really all there is to offer on this album, because if the instrumental part wasn't an afterthought, it definitely feels like one. "Right Side of the Bed" has a standout riff in the beginning, but even I immediately recognized it as damn near plagiarism of In Flames's "The Hive". I don't even fuckin' like In Flames and I still immediately thought I recognized that riff from a better song. This is some of the most inoffensive cookie cutter metalcore I've heard, and I've done deep dives into Christian metalcore where the music is a distinct and intentional second behind the lyrics. Even For Today's worst albums have more effort put into the music than The Curse does. If they're going for emotional intensity, they fail to elicit any emotion beyond total boredom. The vocals are so front-and-center and so rarely shut the fuck up for more than a few seconds at a whack that it's pretty clear what the intended focal point of the band is. I can't intensely hate something that isn't there, ya know? I'll give them some credit for precisely one song buried in the back half. "My Sanity on the Funeral Pyre" sounds like they hired a completely different backing band, because while it isn't necessarily great or anything, there is so much more effort put into this one it's genuinely shocking. The verses ride on this punishing chug riff while the bass does a whole bunch of dwiddly doodles before they come crashing into lockstep in the pre-chorus for a genuinely good galloping melodeath riff. It took them eleven fucking tracks to prove it but there are actual musicians in this band as opposed to it being the project of two mediocre vocalists trying and failing to punch above their weight so hard that they're getting KO'd by Glass Joe.
I have no ending to this review. Atreyu is bad.
Wednesday, September 23, 2020
The End of Fartache
I always namedrop Killswitch as the prototypical metalcore band by the definition that caught fire around this time in America, but in all honesty As I Lay Dying was always right there with them and I've always seen them as sister bands to each other. I came around to AILD years ago, but KSE has no such love from me, almost entirely because I'm only familiar with with their 2013 album that nobody listened to and have a vague memory of them being one of the wimpier bands in the style when I was a teenager. In giving The End of Heartache a full, good faith listen well over a decade after the fact, I think I lucked out with my assumption being more or less right on the money. At least when compared to AILD, as they so often were back then, Killswitch is definitely the less threatening band by a pretty wide margin.
So when I say they're one of the earliest examples of metalcore to break through, I'm obviously not talking about the Converge style where manic hardcore got dashed against metal. I'm talking about this very specific substyle with an identical name that spawned an inescapable scene in the early to mid aughts. This style (and so by extension, this album) is basically just Swedish melodeath as popularized by In Flames (which I sometimes deconstruct into "Iron Maiden with growls") blended with a vaguely hardcore proclivity for big knuckle-breaking breakdowns and a more explicitly post-hardcore love of emotive lyrics about inner struggles and relationships delivered with sugary sweet vocals in the invariably cleanly sung chorus of every single song. So what you get when you hit play here is a sequence of predictable songs that start with double bass and screaming over aggressive Slaughter of the Soul b-sides before transitioning into expressive cleans over a half-time melodic chorus. Repeat once, do a big heavy breakdown, bring the chorus back with harsh vocals layering in the background. Rinse and repeat twelve times for a guaranteed success.
From what I understand, The End of Heartache was a major moment for Killswitch Engage, since judging by what I've picked up in my research, this was a bit of a hard melodic turn for them. This could well be due to the introduction of vocalist Howard "Bones" Jones. According to people I asked who like this band, the original (and now current again) vocalist, Jesse "The Body" Leach, is a better screamer, while Jones is a better singer. So in theory it was the correct move to pivot to a more melodic approach in order to play to his strength. And I won't deny it, Jones has a fucking beautiful voice. His screams are nothing to write home about but his cleans are these booming injections of tender mid-range smoothness into the music that I can't help but admire unironically. "Smooth" really is the operative word here, because once he switches to his cleans he doesn't have an ounce of grit in him, but they work marvelously in the context of what the music is trying to do with these grand melodic choruses.
The issue is that he works with what the music is trying to do. In practice, the actual instrumental component of this record is so uninteresting and dull that he winds up being a wonderful singer miscast in a really average metal band. Going straight from Shadows Fall to Killswitch has shown a positively canyonesque gulf in riff writing ability. The End of Heartache is just as formulaic as anything in the niche tended to be, but apart from the crazy intense intro of "When Darkness Falls" and an awesome straight-to-the-point riff about thirty seconds into "Wasted Sacrifice" they fail to squeak out something that's even accidentally exciting. "Simple" is not a dirty word for me, but god damn half of this album feels like first draft riffs that sorta fit into whatever song they were working on at the time that they failed to workshop even a little bit. This feels lazy because that's such a hard criticism to back up, but it's really the best I've got. I imagine a scene where "Mad" Adam Dutkiewicz sits down in his bedroom with his guitar. He's already done his warmup exercises and jammed through some classic tunes he likes, so now it's songwriting time. He closes his eyes and says "Okay, let's just play a metal riff", so he opens his eyes and plays the very first generic melodeath-y pattern that pops into his head before proudly saying "Done!" and emailing Jones to let him know the eighth track is ready. I know they're professionals so I'm sure they worked really hard on all of these songs but man that's the vibe I get and it's hard to elucidate further. Listen to that first riff on "Rose of Sharyn" and tell me with a straight face that that wasn't the first god damned idea he had before laying it to tape. Hell it even sounds remarkably similar to the first riff on "Breathe Life"! Same tempo playing similar patterns with the only substantial difference being a few more trilling bits on the latter track.
Even though I'm 100% sure these aren't literal first drafts, that's really the approach that makes the album make the most sense to me. Structures are reused and so many sections are similar to one another throughout the album, from the tempos to the drum beats to the interplay between the guitars in the most melodic sections, The End of Heartache sounds like three songwriting tricks being flogged to the point of tedium and that's really the overarching problem with the whole album. I can dig simplicity and pop song structuring, not everything needs to showcase some sort of avant-garde wizardry, but this goes too far in the other direction and plays everything so safe that it's actively un-fun to listen to. At the end of the day, I'm walking away from this experience feeling like I just listened to a royalty-free audio pack labeled "metal-1.midi" with an inexplicably good vocalist crooning over the top. It's a weak final thought but it's a weak album and I don't have much to work with, capice?
Monday, September 21, 2020
If you've been around here for a while, you may remember my aborted Preteen Wasteland series from a few years ago, where I planned to revisit the nu metal albums I loved as a tween with the added gimmick of my mom writing a paragraph for each review since we listened to this albums together all the time. It petered out because that gimmick was a gamble that didn't pay off, since she's a much more busy person than I am and just never found the time to revisit all of these old albums her dumbass son liked twenty years ago (if you're curious, the only albums that held up for me were Wisconsin Death Trip and Iowa, and Linkin Park, despite not being very enjoyable, at least stood out for their vocalists being one of the only good singers and the only rapper who clearly actually rapped for a living in the entire genre). The secret part of all that is that I had a sequel series also planned, and now three years later I'm finally gonna take a break from playing Dragon Quest to get started on it.
I mentioned that I grew out of nu metal because as I got older, I got more interested in classic 80s metal and started to reject new, modern movements out of hand. Because of this, the entire "NWOAHM" scene completely passed me by as it was happening. Metal fans at school would see my Metallica shirt and try to start a conversation, and I'd snottily dismiss them based on their Killswitch Engage shirt and stupid haircut. I'm sorry, does your shit thrash? Then I don't fuckin' care, Kyle. So help me god if I hear one god damned breakdown or one lyric about being sad then I'm going to screech like King Diamond at you until you leave me the hell alone. It's no surprise that the few friends I had were also lame nerds.
But now that I'm in my thirties and much less needlessly aggressive in every interaction, I think it's time I took a walk down memory lane, back into the halls of my high school, and take a look at the alternate timeline where I actually gave Kyle the time of day and gave his bands a shot. The criteria here is fairly broad. I'm going to be looking at the bands that had a foothold in the mainstream between ~2003-2006 that were netting good slots at Ozzfest, getting rotation on WZZN, and basically contributing to the musical zeitgeist of my generation that I stubbornly refused to even listen to because they probably didn't sound enough like Overkill and I desperately wanted the approval of the Elder Metalheads online. From the initial boom of metalcore facilitated by As I Lay Dying, to the easier listening alternative emo metalcore or whatever the fuck Bullet for My Valentine was, to the nebulous blend of melodeath, thrash, and groove metal that Lamb of God made cool. I'm not going in order of chronological release date this time, I'm just gonna sit here and think of a half dozen or so bands and albums from this era that I snobbily dismissed and go look at them with fresh senses. You with me? Let's go!
The Light that Blands
Shadows Fall apparently has a pretty storied history within this niche, being one of the earlier bands to form (way back in 1995) and pulling an In Flames by having "Land" Phil Labonte (the meathead dipshit from All That Remains) sing on their first album before landing their iconic vocalist in "Flyin'" Brian Fair, and also accomplishing the rare feat of keeping a stable lineup for a solid 15 years and releasing several influential albums in a row with the same group of dudes in the studio. That's why I'm choosing to start this series with them as opposed to bigger bands that broke out earlier. Shadows Fall just kinda passes the smell test a bit better in terms of being a statuesque institution in the scene almost entirely due to their stability and, if fans are to be believed, consistency. We're going to be looking at 2004's The War Within purely because a quick skim of the tracklist reveals some names that I vaguely remember hearing on the radio, so I'm not starting completely blind.
Let me tell you, I feel like a door in some deeply buried temple in my mind unlocked when I heard the main riff of "What Drives the Weak" that starts around the eleven second mark. That fuckin' octave-slide-to-gallop-chug-to-pinch-harmonic brought back so many memories. Hearing that was like unlocking the overworld map in Zelda. It turns out that not only do I remember that riff, I also remember every note and lyric to not only "What Drives the Weak", but also "Inspiration on Demand" and "The Light that Blinds", the three I passively heard on the radio as a teenager. This might seem like personal fluff to pad out the review but really I think it speaks to how finely tuned Shadows Fall's songwriting is. These hooks never left my brain after picking them up via audial osmosis a decade and a half earlier. The aggression inherent in most metal is definitely there in the speedy double bass and harsh vocals, but these guys have a very keen ear for melody and hooks, absolutely nailing that nexus between simplicity and complexity by crafting catchy riffs and In Flames style melodies that are different enough to be instantly recognizable and simple enough to be easily remembered. The abundance of squealing guitar solos keeps The War Within recognizably metallic in its theatricality and the equal abundance of simplistic chugs and breakdowns interspersed between the high tempo melodeath riffing keeps it recognizably emblematic of the time in which it was made. This is As I Lay Dying for thrash kids, and I absolutely should've loved this as a teen.
The problem arises when you listen beyond those three singles, because Shadows Fall definitely suffers from the same problem Lamb of God frequently fell victim to. The War Within has a few obvious highlights and then a bunch of filler. They're excellent at crafting these memorable hooks, but they're very reliant on a small handful of tricks to achieve this effect, and it doesn't take long for the simplified pop song verse-chorus structure to reveal itself to be a very workmanlike project. Apart from the closest thing the scene probably had to a power ballad in "Inspiration on Demand" and the sweet guitar lick that opens "The Light that Blinds", the remaining eight tracks are all more or less interchangeable. "What Drives the Weak" is clearly the best one thanks to that tasty main riff, memorable chorus, bass licks in the pre-chorus, and soaring leads, but everything else sounds like previous drafts of that song before the screws were fully tightened. I've listened to this like four or five times in preparation for this review and I still can't remember what "Act of Contrition" or "Ghosts of Past Failures" sounds like. "The Power of I and I" really should stand out for the first thirty seconds being honest to god Cannibal Corpse worship, but it very quickly shifts gears back into that nebulous monogenre that took America by storm in the mid aughts.
It really doesn't help that Fair is uh... more "recognizable" as a vocalist than he is "good". That's not to say he's bad necessarily, but his gruff monotone quasi-scream is basically musical wallpaper and it gets to be distracting when you pay attention to it. It sounds like Fair knows that you can avoid damage to your vocal chords by screaming more from your diaphragm than from your throat, but he never really nailed the technique in such a way that would allow him to sound as menacing as he's likely trying to sound. As a result they're very breathy and clearly layered over themselves a few times throughout the whole album, so they come off more like talk-level yells with a volume boost. That legitimate death metal influence does shine through occasionally with random deep roars, but they're depressingly uncommon. Shadows Fall is very much a guitar band, all of their best elements revolve around the riffs and solos, so it's bizarre to me that the vocals often take center stage considering how mediocre they are compared to the rest of the band. If my memory is correct, the guitarists are the ones who handle the clean vocals that invariably carry every chorus, and they're fine I guess, but it just sorta adds to the plug-and-play nature of the songwriting. The individual elements are occasionally fantastic, but the old dichotomy of "harsh aggressive verses - clean melodic choruses" never breaks, and it gets old very quickly.
The instrumental element of the band is surprisingly great, but the vocals are an obvious weak link and the songwriting is very formulaic. As a result, The War Within is basically a blur of faceless aggression with a handful of spikes in quality every three tracks or so. As much as I'd love to hear more of those death metal roots poking through, I feel like leaning into them any more than they have would fundamentally change what the band was going for, so that feels like an unfair way to critique the album, especially when all the best parts are clearly rooted in American melodeath instead of orthodox death metal anyway. The overall color of the album is "grey". Any splashes of vibrance to be found are pretty neatly sequestered into the handful of great songs and the rest of the album feels like a tedious sidequest before getting back to the good songs. I'm still gonna give it a positive score because god dammit I really like the three songs I highlighted early on and the rest of the album is fundamentally very similar to them, but on the whole it loses its lustre pretty quickly. If nothing else, I feel like this is a great primer to this scene because everything that made it what it is is here to some extent, and I feel confident in saying that everything I check out from this point on will focus on one element found here more than the rest.