Last week one of those viral Facebook status games went around. You know the ones—“I’ve been to X states how many have you?” with shaded areas or a Q&A of which sibling or spouse in your family is considered the more Y than the others, etc. This one going around was “I’ve been to 9 of the following 10 concerts—which is fake?” I’m usually not one for these games or copy-paste status shares but this caught my eye because I love music and frequent concerts. I love ranking, debating, and sharing music information as well. It was fun to learn what friends had seen what shows—that a Jehovah’s Witness mother of two friend of mine I’d never heard so much as cuss had seen Master P as a teen or that I had friends who’d caught both Kurt Cobain and Eliot Smith live before their suicides was interesting to me.

I realized when receiving notifications of comments on either mine or a friend’s status that I’d guessed at that for the first time in months (or longer) I actually enjoyed something on Facebook. I’ve been as guilty as others in the news-shares that only preach to the choir or piss off the other side but never change minds and rarely inspire actual action and I do like that news stories I trust and find worth my time populate in my feed on the regular but since the build up to the 2016 election and the fallout afterward I’ve felt little joy in reading or interacting with anything on Facebook. This was different and small as it was I enjoyed it.

Then almost instantly I began seeing backlash and realized just like I’ve always suspected, there can be no joy on most of the internet least of all Facebook. “Ugh I hate concerts who cares?” status updates or “thanks for reminding me I’ve never seen anything” or ultimately worst of all, comments that “these updates just showcase how privileged some people are that they can waste their time and money on such trivialities”—I’m paraphrasing and combining several comments and conversations into one with that but it’s a pretty apt summary of what I saw in one corner of the newsfeed. That’s just indicative of the need to –ism and box every activity and action, to privilege check all that shouldn’t be privilege checked and ultimately to force us all to realize: there.can.be.no.joy.

I love live music. I love music in general and love albums but I especially love the live concert experience. It’s all encompassing and it purges my mind of the clouds and cobwebs and self-doubt and cynicism. I went to a couple of shows a year from my late teens through my early twenties then a buddy and I spent two years of college hitting the road every time anywhere in a 6 hour radius a band either of us loved was playing. After graduation I caught shows sporadically but three years ago my wife and I moved to the Nashville area. While I’m no real (mainstream) country music fan, I quickly realized Nashville was beginning to draw more and more diverse acts. As someone who loves metal as well I was pleasantly surprised to see death, black, doom, trad and other metal acts from acclaimed upstart acts to historical legacy acts coming to the area. Though I’m approaching my mid-thirties at this point since I came to my full love of extreme metal rather later in life I took advantage of a somewhat flexible work schedule to hit as many of these shows, most of which could be enjoyed for less than $30, as possible—well, at least one a month.

I have no children. My wife and I trust each other to do things without the other when we want. We’ve slowly dug our way of debt (still a way to go) but the last 3 years are the first time in our lives one or both of us hasn’t been in some sort of school or degree program and it’s the first time we’ve both had something at least approximating a real career. So if I want to spend $30 or less on a show—then throw $50 if I feel like it on drinks and merch to support the hard-touring acts—on a Tuesday night in a warehouse or damp basement show or heck $75 occasionally for a legacy act in an arena then I don’t know whose business it is but my own. As for privilege? I have waited in so many lines for concerts and I see hard-working 20-50 year old folks, some obviously there straight from work with a schedule on deck for the next AM waiting in line to hear a song they love by a band they admire. I see folks who maybe want to have a drink and wait for the lights to go down and the spectacle to begin. To forget whoever is in office and whatever is owed, whatever has not worked out for them and just breathe for a few hours.

I remember those maps of “I’ve been to X states” and remember feeling bummed that I’d been nowhere outside of the southern geographic radius of states right into my 30s. I am only now at a point at which I can afford to really travel at least once a year. Sporting events? Outside of an occasional minor league baseball game I have no interest in spending my money and time at one. So do what you like in life when you have the opportunity because experiences are almost always worth it. I have fond memories of every show I’ve been to and they always yield stories to tell to like-minded fans. This year two of my best memories so far are a 4-act metal tour where I bounced around (often flying through the air) in a sweaty mosh pit for 5 hours and a small dark club where a gothic folk singer sang the words of songs I’d played on repeat for months to chilling effect. I’m not really a religious person (though I once was) but the right live show functions in the way the best religious service can—it builds an instant community, involves the whole body, and overwhelms all of the senses. It clears the mind.

So yeah, if you like live music just make the effort. There’s probably a city or town within an hour of you that will have at least 1 good show a month—catch one some time and if you like it, let the band know by buying a shirt or two. If you don’t like live music? Find something else to do with your time but don’t be annoying.

Lastly, I was thinking about how at least Yelp and Goodreads, as far as social media goes, function optimally by keeping the focus on the subject(s) at hand. Then I received a random message on Yelp yesterday from a stranger calling me names because I mentioned in a review I preferred omelets to scrambled eggs: No.Joy.

 

 

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This is an odd post for me in terms of format. I invited your general comments here and stated I was going to try blogging again but from a new vantage point. Here’s where I start doing that, but as it’s the first such attempt it’s quite scatter-shot. I want to throw out every line of thought I have on these events as seeds for my future series of posts which will address controversial art and culture, different conceptions of “God” and how they work themselves out in society, etc. This piece is quite lengthy too and I’m sure by speaking on Hedbo and Boko Haram I will anger someone though that is not my point. So as a warning here it is in case my lines of argument meander: I am thoroughly anti-terror; anti-extremism; pro-pluralism; pro-free speech; anti-Islamaphobia; anti-racist; anti-hate speech; and a few other things along the way. Here goes.

Terrorists committed acts of senseless violence in Paris and Nigeria in the name of Islam once again. Once again, people are pondering what role freedom of speech, censorship, and religion plays in all of this. But are we talking about the right things and are we talking about them in the right context? I have studied Islam for many years. I’ve studied religion as a whole even longer. It’s impossible to know if I would have initially studied Islam as intensely as I did if not for 9/11, but I know that event certainly caused me to look deeper into a religion I before knew very little about. Yet the things that sustained my interest in Islam and kept me pouring so deeply over its texts—the Quran, hadiths, as well as books on Islam’s history, theology, and ethics, not to mention Sufi poetry and works on Arab, Persian, and “Islamic” culture—was much deeper, richer, and more complex than current events and terrorism. What kept my attention was this concept of a stark, complete Monotheism; monotheism of a sort that was somehow mystical and holistic, and really quite sensible as far as religious beliefs go even if it never was my own belief. What kept me studying and working around Islam in some way was becoming aware of the progress, cultural development, and unique history of inventiveness in Islamic history and culture so often overlooked by the west and left silent in most western history classes and textbooks. It was the way Islam intertwined science, philosophy, theology, art, and a type of de facto pluralism for so many years during their brightest hours. It was a host of writers, Muslim and Non-Muslim who had a love and deep knowledge of the subject on deft display in their work: Rumi, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Seyyed Nasr, Khaled Abou El Fadl, W. Montgomery Watt, Mohammad Iqbal, Abdualiziz Sachedina, G. Willow Wilson, Malcolm X, Eboo Patel, Marshall Hodgson, and many other writers, theologians, teachers and students ancient and current. And of course, it also became the friends and colleagues I’ve met over the years who identify as Muslims—students, teachers, and coworkers who are diverse, passionate, funny, forward-thinking and devout. Every time a tragedy like these recent events occur I think of those folks I’ve met over the years who work so hard to make progress—progress in religious study, science, academia, non-profits and society as a whole who time and time again find themselves pressed to defend their culture, their religion and ultimately their own identity in a way Christians and secularists never are when violence is done in the name of Christ or rationalism. Admittedly right here right now radical Islam certainly has a huge corner of much of the market on extremist violence in the way those other ideologies at the moment do not—but there are many factors for this and I hope to get there in this series of posts. Inter-religious dialogue, inter-faith action, and religious pluralism were (and in many ways remain) passionate interests and objectives of mine. I think these areas must also include dialogue and cooperation with atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists though.

So I want to talk about violence as it pertains to religion. I want to be as honest as I can and welcome as much comment as is given. This is the first of many in this new set of dialogues, so give me time to get there.

During my own spiritual development I have been many things. I was a southern Baptist as a child for reasons most people are what they are—because that’s what my parents were and that’s how they raised me. In my late teens I was nothing for awhile, but not adamantly nothing. I was “Christian” but disillusioned with church. I wanted something that seemed real to me. Then I became an Episcopalian as a twenty-something, in love with ritual, symbolism and seemingly ancient styles of worship on the one hand and progressive theology on the other. I attended a Presbyterian seminary sometime after, pursuing a Masters in religious studies. I then attended Unitarian Universalist churches but never committed. I’ve attended so many places of worship as a student, visitor, and inter-faith participant—synagogues, mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and practically every Christian denomination. When visiting most places of worship regardless of the type I’ve always been fascinated with what I see and met the kindest people, but as a whole I have never “felt” those services. For me, I have to reinterpret and re-contextualize so much of what I encounter in a place of worship to make what is presented something palatable and relatable, so much so that at the end of that effort I no longer recognize it as that which it really is. So I guess I’m secular now. The thing is, some of those I debated early on—on this blog, in classrooms, and elsewhere—likely felt this was the only place I could end up. I was adamantly in the “progressive Christian” camp for awhile, arguing it on paper and in person quite thoroughly. Those on the more conservative end of the spectrum saw it as a slippery slope to where I find myself now. They likely saw this result as inevitable. But I really know that the place I was arguing from was a real and authentic place even if part of me knew even then I was eventually to move out of that space. I know so many heartfelt, intelligent, active individuals working to make the world a better place fervently and cognitively in that camp now and they’ve been there longer than I was and will likely remain there. I’m always hesitant to word things in a way that makes it seem like I have “evolved” past particular viewpoints because I don’t see it that way and wouldn’t want those folks to think I did either. Part of me wishes I could still claim that same territory as my own but I can’t and the most I can say even close to negative for those who can is that I am unable to see how they remain there sometimes. But I digress. Secular Humanism is yet another label though and I’m increasingly wary of religious (and irreligious) labels. I know that I am (perhaps doomed is a strong word) to remain in conversation with religion on a deep level forever. It intrigues me, abhors me, invites me. Many of my heroes and many of those I see making the most positive impact on the world continue to be religious people. Certainly scientists and rationalists make huge impacts but the work of heroes like MLK Jr. were so intrinsically interwoven with their own faith in all that I could never write off the power and promise of unabashed religion.

Conversely, critique of religion and art that stands in defiance of the religious culture it finds itself in, particularly of the excesses and hypocrisies of that religion have always attracted me. In hindsight, were it not for my love of rock, metal, and hip hop music as a young teen I might not have challenged my church’s agenda on almost every issue as I did. I loved my Metallica CDs so much so that my youth leader’s insistence that such music was evil and that as Christians we should only listen to music that explicitly praises God forced me to step back, re-evaluate, and argue against a slew of church party-lines. This reached a height of debate that was totally out of place as I look back on it yet that was instrumental on practically everything else I’ve done regarding religion ever since. I would show up to youth group meetings prepared to debate the issues. I had studied scripture, other interpretations of that scripture, and how other churches related differently to the issues and I would fight my point. Not raising my voice, not intentionally being disrespectful, but always arguing. I argued women in ministry (pro), evolution (pro), “hell houses” (anti), Bill Clinton (pro) and more than anything music, movies and art (pro). This was really an odd way to spend youth group and Sunday school as a 14-16 year old kid, but that’s how it went for me. All credit due to the church leaders for not simply tossing me out. One in particular always welcomed my engagement and argued his opposing view in a friendly, paternal way. Another, no t so much. Yet if it weren’t for my deep love of music, music which might shock, offend, or engage, but more than anything, music that was just willing to address every type of emotion or thought without filter or censorship I might never have truly evaluated what I thought about my religious beliefs.

So now, I step back to really think about some things in this regard. A lot of conservative commentators have dredged up the old “piss Christ” artwork from several years ago that caused a stir but certainly wasn’t attacked, defaced or even de-funded. Conservative pundits have complained of the American press’s defense of such art and their criticism and perceived ridicule of religious conservatives angry over such things in contrast to those same voices now claiming Charlie Hedbo overstepped boundaries. Why have blasphemous artwork in public museums and in media archives but not reprint the controversial Hedbo cartoons? I can’t help but think of myself; how Islamaphobic comments have always made me bristle, especially since getting to know so many great Muslim people and studying so much of Islam’s rich history and modern theology. I’ve always been vocal that terrorists do not represent Islam and that most loud criticisms of Islam—from Bill Maher or the late Christopher Hitchens—sadly misunderstand and lampoon authentic Islam. Yet on the other hand, I’ve never had a problem with art or music that radically challenges Christianity even when I was at my most “Christian.” Be it Ennis’ graphic novel “Preacher,” Kevin Smith’s film “Dogma” or Marilyn Manson’s “Antichrist Superstar,” (looking back at time-appropriate references to my teen years) I’ve always found such work served a purpose even if I disagreed with the specifics of the statements being made. In fact, I’ve always been drawn to pop culture that directly addresses such matters even if from what many would consider an offensive vantage point. Metal music fascinates me because of this—few avenues of popular culture or art address, critique, and deconstruct religion of all kinds and in every way as much as extreme metal has over the years. But here’s the thing. Christianity in the modern west functions much differently than Islam in the modern Middle East or Africa or even in Europe. We’re all born into a subtle Christian culture which is all around us even when not spoken of It’s just assumed that one is Christian in America and this has provoked much of the reaction against it. It seems to play a role in very selective political issues, often with hypocritical irony. Usually those that criticize Christianity in places of power come from nominally Christian backgrounds even if they reject that religion. Yet if we in the west are to criticize Islam on the same grounds in the same way, we do so as outsiders of that culture and tradition and often without true understanding of that religion or the cultural and ethnic identities inherently tied up with and born into that religion. The staff of Charlie Hedbo did not deserve the violence that was inflicted upon them; but they were not criticizing Islam in the same way or with the same impetus and method as say Marilyn Manson attacked Christianity in the 1990s. They lampooned Islam from an outside perspective, isolating and provoking a minority community in France and often with racial overtones. Should they have had that right? Sure. Yet it’s not quite the same thing as, say, Nergal of Behemoth writing “The Satanist” in response to being charged with blasphemy for “non-Christian activity” in his native Poland; especially since he’s on record as happy to continue to be surrounded by Christians as long as there’s diversity and he can defy their viewpoints in his art. And at least his work is steeped in the knowledge of the text and traditions he is criticizing. He goaded a majority from a minority standpoint, primarily in a way to emphasize individuality, liberty, and personal rights; the Hedbo cartoons played on xenophobia, racism, and Islamaphobia. They did so in a very volatile milieu under steady threat and as such stuck to their guns bravely, but I feel a bit ambivalent about defending such work in an argument on free speech. Yet I mourn their death and decry the acts of terror.

Bill Maher says we should hold all religions up to ridicule because that’s what they deserve. The problem is that we will not solve anything by doing so. Secular humanists and atheists should certainly work in partnership with Christians and Muslims to solve problems but they cannot do so by agitating and ridiculing on-edge communities and they cannot do so by lumping an entire culture into a false stereotype. The only way to stem the tide of Islamic extremism is by fostering a healthy and vibrant progressive Islam. Those who attack religious conventions in societies where a monolithic religion reigns around them do so because their outsider status in that community is isolating. Rejecting, attacking, and critiquing the overall religious environment they find themselves in is healthy even when the specifics of the statements are problematic. Attacking a minority religion from a majority perspective is dangerous.

Now, as I write this the horrific events in Nigeria have been reported. I’m reminded of one additional fact in considering the carnage and senseless acts of terror that were perpetrated there—Muslims are the biggest victim of terrorism. Extremist Muslims violate every religious law they claim to follow on a consistent basis. From the Muslim security guard murdered in the Charlie Hedbo shooting and the Muslims slaughtered by Boko Haram as direct victims at the hands of those misguidedly claiming the same religion to the millions of cultural, ethnic, and practicing Muslims around the world who continuously find themselves asked to defend their religion and identity; not to mention the outside violence and retaliation terrorism brings back to Muslim homelands. By and away the largest victims of Islamic extremists are average Muslims.

So I’m conflicted. I believe in freedom of speech intensely. I believe any religious or ideological thought or belief is fair game for critique in the court of public discourse. Yet I do not believe in castigating someone’s identity and culture in a marginalizing way that heightens tension and increases the potential for violence. I also do not believe that the way to bring about an end to extremism lies in forcing a group to ridicule its own identity. In this entire conversation I think we are not talking about the right things. We’re not talking about the inherent identity of religion– that for most people religious identity is determined by birth place and parents. We’re not talking about how Islam is a diverse, complex religion and its adherents vary drastically around the world. We’re not emphasizing that so many of the victims of Islamic extremism are Muslims themselves. We’re not reporting the huge number of Muslims and Muslim groups who are speaking out against terrorism and working actively against it in partnership with other religions and secularists. We’re not talking about our role—the West’s—in helping form and spread modern religious extremism. That’s it. That’s what I’ve got right now. When I continue I will be more focused and to the point; this time it was all about throwing out every conflicted thought I had on these events in preparation for a more focused future approach and series of posts. I invite your comments below; please be aware I am not trying to be authoritative on any of what I’ve said above other than the part about my own religious journey. I welcome opposing viewpoints but please don’t approach it as if I’ve issued the “right” answer and will tackle a formal defense. Thanks for reading.

black_breath_sentenced_to_life

10) Black Breath – Sentenced to Life

Black Breath channel their punk influences and energy into uncompromising metal. This is a hybrid whirl of punk, death, thrash, and hardcore, complete with Gothic flourishes. Sentenced to Life is all energy, all excitement, and it’s likely the best metal album you didn’t hear this year.

Lamb-of-God-Resolution

9) Lamb of God – Resolution

It was a rough year for LOG’s lead-singer Randy Blythe as he spent much of in a Czech prison over a touring incident, and so much of the US and the world of metal fans as a whole were left without a chance to see the band’s latest, Resolution, performed live. The pre-release hype for their latest album was big in the heavy rock community–LOG have arguably risen as high in popularity as a band can without becoming crossover stars. And although some who see their last few records as polished and clean might disagree, LOG haven’t compromised their music in any cross-over appeals as most big-ticket metal bands in their shoes have done in the past. LOG could possibly be as big as Metallica or Pantera in their own way, but they’ve just continued making Death-Metal influenced American Heavy Metal, with catchy choruses, propelling beats, great intense vocals, and (most of the time) actual worthwhile lyrics (as Blythe did in addressing his own battles with alcoholism on early songs, or by making an  entire album of socio-political commentary on the Iraq War with Ashes of the Wake). Resolution isn’t the best album they’ve ever made, but it is more than solid with quite a few great songs.

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8) Dying Fetus- Reign Supreme

With a ridiculously offensive band name that practically ensures noone outside of metal will ever give them an open ear, Maryland’s Dying Fetus have kept a career going full of albums that pummel listeners with the loudest, fastest, most musically and vocally insane grind-influenced American death metal being made today. Their latest, “Reign Supreme” sets out to display everything they do best, and as such this is either for your or a nightmare for your ears and good taste. Yet despite their name, DF don’t wallow in offense for offense’s sake or retread tired exploitative lyrical territories. They perceive themselves as a political band, and behind the contorted growls and kick-drum blast-beats,  social commentary and pseudo-intellectual observations (couched in aggressive language of punk and protest) abound. This is intense music, good to head-bang or work out to, but it’s also musician’s music in its own way in that this is not simply made material. This album is the heaviest piece of work I heard all year, at least without forsaking song structure and melody completely. This really does work and it works better the more a listener allows its layers to unwrap.

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7) Van Halen – A Different Kind of Truth

Eddie Van Halen is the reason countless metal guitarists first picked up the axe to play–and likely also the reason many hung it up in frustration that they couldn’t reach his soaring heights. David Lee Roth may often come across as a caricature and a jerk, but he’s also the blue-print for many a lead singer who followed him in heavy music. Together, these two forces created one of the best heavy rock albums of all time with their debut Van Halen album. Unfortunately, few albums in the band’s long history (and after Roth’s departure) ever lived up to that first effort. Now, the brief reunion (which collapsed before the tour was even more than halfway under way) didn’t produce the exact results of that original outing 30 something years ago, but A Different Kind of Truth is the best Van Halen record to come along since. The opening cheesiness of “Tattoo” is classic Van Halen, as is the quick follow-up “She’s the Woman.”  The opening riff for “You and Your Blues” is phenomenally simple, “Big River” rolls like one, and the closing “Stay Frosty” is the best Van Halen song in more than two decades. This album is supposedly the result of a revisit by the band to old demos and left aside tracks from their earliest days, polished and played with a career’s worth of experience behind them. As such, it’s a pleasant surprise, an album much better than anyone could have expected.

cmist

6) Christian Mistress – Possession

Christian Mistress have received most of their attention because of their front-woman Christine Davis. Here is a female singer in a heavy metal band that carries the band to another level altogether. Female artists get a lot of attention in metal (and in hip hop) due to how badly they’re outnumbered by the boys, but Davis deserves attention for reasons wholly more than gender in that she is simply a terrific lead singer. She’s the heart of this band, and although their guitarists and drummer are all great and make great, neo-classicist heavy metal, Davis soars through each song with a powerful range and presence that accents each and every word with power. All the songs here are good, whether Gothic tinged ballad or full-throttle heavy metal anthem, but my favorite and most-played track of them all is “Conviction”–there’s something bone-chillingly haunting yet simultaneously gorgeous about the mid-song breakdown with Davis’ moaning intonations, and the kick-start that amps the song back up after that to race it to its end is that much better because of it.

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5) Baroness – Yellow & Green

Baroness have been more “metal” in the past; with their latest double album release of the next two albums in the “color” series, Baroness move away from Doom and Sludge–and some would say of metal altogether. Yet something beyond just their history in the genre cements this work in the (at least outer circles) of the metal genre. The vocals are clean and clear, the music is fully approachable,  but the emotional heaviness and intensity with which even the softest of songs are approached here remains, in whatever way, metal. “Take My Bones Away” and “March to the Sea” are reminders of a certain way of doing Rock that isn’t heard too often these days and a reminder of how that is missed.

Nile-2012

4) Nile – At the Gates of Sethu

Talk about a unique niche–ancient Egyptian death metal. Of course, there are now a few other bands who lyrically narrate songs about ancient Egyptian and middle eastern cultures and religions, but few ever reach the level of consummate genius that Nile has over a series of increasingly excellent albums. At the Gates of Sethu is the latest and greatest work of the band and includes everything fans love about them–heavy, dense, technical guitar mastery, sonic extremity, detailed lyrics (complete with liner notes which analyze the texts that inspired and are often incorporated into the songs) that faithfully and truthfully transmit historical texts, and  one of the best melodic death growl vocals in metal.

Testament-Dark-Roots-Of-Earth-Artwork

3) Testament – Dark Roots of the Earth

Testament are a relentless thrash metal band. They’ve been making pure Thrash metal since the “big four” (Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, Slayer) started their careers in it and have continued on, an album every couple of years, long after most other Thrash bands have softened, moved on, or burned out. They’ve never moved in any sort of way to the mainstream, which has  certainly endeared them to metal-heads even if it has kept them underexposed to a larger audience. Dark Roots of the Earth is a great, fast, fun metal record from start to finish, full of stellar riffs and rollicking drums, and surprisingly, chock full of hooks. The vocals here are full of melody and there are sing-along choruses galore–something not found on every Testament record, but something done well here which works and manages to keep the songs grounded in Trash without moving them into some sort of cheesy pop metal. “Rise Up,” “Man Kills Mankind,” and the title track all display what this band has done best for more than 25 years now.

Deftones-Koi-No-Yokan

2) Deftones – Koi No Yokan

I wrote a bit about why the Deftones are so good when explaining my pick of the Koi No Yokan track “Entombed” as one of the “Top 25 Singles/Songs of 2012” here. “Entombed” is a beautiful, soft-loud alternative metal ballad, a type of song that Deftones do better than anyone else. They do that sort of thing elsewhere on the record, notably with “Rosemary.” On these sort of songs the Deftones showcase their Smiths influence without being over-run by it as most other more recent heavy or emo bands influenced by Morrissey and company. Chino Moreno is a great vocalist who can really sing (as he uses to full-effect in his side-project Crosses in addition to these ‘tones ballads). He is unafraid to make “pretty” music as he has said, and that’s what much of Koi is, even at its heaviest moments. This band can switch from soft to heavy, from emotional and warm to full-force and thrashing without ever losing the melody. The above-mentioned “Rosemary” is a good showpiece for these disparate talents in its flux and pace-changes throughout. Then there’s the hand-clap rumble of “Poltergeist,” the unfurling psychological workout of “Leathers” (reminiscent of the classic “Change (in the house of flies) track from the bands seminal work White Pony), or just solid songs like “Goon Squad” and “Swerve City.” This is the best work the band has done in awhile, at least on fresh ears–there are songs from “Diamond Eyes” just now making their way into my listening rotation and catching on, so who knows which songs will stand-out from this set for me in a couple of years.

 

Pig-Destroyer-Book-Burner

1) Pig Destroyer – Book Burner

PxDx also made my overall “10 Best Albums of 2012” list with their latest effort. You can read why here.

Read “Part I” here.

Part II: The Golden Age of Heavy Metal

As the 1980s set in, metal as a genre began making fervent attempts at mainstream acknowledgement and ultimate embrace. 1982s “Number of the Beast” record by Iron Maiden was a smash, drawing in fans and deriders in almost equal numbers. It set up what would be the main sound of heavy metal for a brief time; released the same year, Motley Crue’s “Shout at the Devil” sparked the LA metal scene which melded pop and metal to create what were at first catchy yet heavy records worth hearing but which would eventually over-saturate the genre and the airwaves through hordes of near-talentless imitators and scenesters eager to cash in on the fad and almost kill the genre itself in the process. Backlash to such mainstream slabs of “metal,” emerged through the young, fast, angry creation of Thrash Metal, pioneered and perfected by “the big three” of Slayer, Metallica, and Megadeth. Later as a shift away from thrash, the global and overwhelmingly underground explosion of Death Metal would push Thrash to its extremities. Leading into the early 1990s as Grunge began to dominate the forefront of “heavy” music and its key figures lambasted and derided metal, most of metal became primarily underground yet key tweaking and fusing of metal with other sounds, like hip hop, prog-rock,  and garage rock, would open the door for another wave of mainstream metal to come.

11) Motley Crue: Shout at the Devil  (1983)

Most of what would become known as “Hair Metal” would be looked on by metal fans and purists as at best a guilty pleasure and at worse an embarrassment. Selling millions and creating lifelong mullet-wearing fans, seeping into the mainstream through the ubiquitous “power ballad” to which scores of high school dances were sound-tracked, the excess of the genre would almost implode metal and the “tough” reputation it strove for. A lot of this pop-metal music was trash, a lot of it was a fun if silly guilty pleasure. Shout at the Devil is the album that stands out as the best and most untarnished artifact of this type of metal. It was and remains a great record and though its success and sound would inspire a bloated and ridiculous scene, one that Crue themselves would fall victim to in much of their later work, Shout remains a solid and important step in the history of metal. Motley Crue’s debut, Too Fast For Love, was an excellent record deftly fusing punk influences with the intensity and feel of early eighties underground metal, sung with plenty of melody and featuring catchy choruses. The follow up, Shout at the Devil, dropped most of the punk influence and drew out the metal a bit more, almost in caricature (the pentagrams and bondage on Crue at this phase couldn’t have looked “authentic” or “serious” even then). They kept the pop, which in this fusion worked perfectly–the end result is a big, loud, over-the-top record that sounds both raw and catchy, polished and slightly dangerous. The title track is the best song a pop-metal band ever made and standouts like “Looks that Kill,” “Too Young to Fall in Love,” and “10 Seconds to Love” keep this record at full-tilt. It doesn’t hurt that Nikki Sixx, Tommy Lee, and Mick Mars are all solid musicians (Sixx perhaps incredibly so) and that singer Vince Neil at this point wasn’t yet a joke. The only reason to keep a record this good from a list like this is an unfair one–for the unfortunate influence this album had that led to the creation of bands like Faster Pussycat.

12) Metallica: Kill ‘Em All (1983)

Metallica managed to release the first real thrash record in 1983 with Kill ‘Em All. There were other bands that were crafting their own thrash records at the time–Metallica had circulated the majority of the songs that wound up on Kill in demo versions through the metal tape-trading circuit, and knowledge and love of this emerging style was growing fast in the underground. Exodus was trying to get their Bonded by Blood record out and a slew of other artists were doing likewise, some stumbling through legal and label issues while others were simply slower on the draw than Metallica. So despite admirable competition, Metallica pulled off the first official release of what would become known as thrash Metal, and the result is one of the best (if rough) metal records of all time. Hetfield had never wanted to be a singer and seems to have gotten stuck with the job due solely to having the least atrocious voice in the band; on the debut record the songs that had circulated in demo-form were now polished off with a revamped vocal technique in which Hetfield now barked out, growling with an occasional note of melody grafted onto the end of a word or phrase, but what came out worked perfectly. The real draw is the full on punch of the music–especially Hetfield’s fast yet technical, thrashing yet precise mastery on the guitar and Cliff Burton’s excellent bass playing (even providing an excellent extended bass solo in “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”), but the entire band plays tight and excellent. The roar of the music was faster than Metal had ever been, harder than metal had ever been, simply more metal than metal had ever truly been. There’s room for musician showmanship around the entire record but things are so compact and fast that it never bloats itself in instrument wanking-off as arena rock had begun doing in the late 1970s. Yet unlike some later Metal, there was still melody drifting through every hard edge to make the music flow and stick in the listeners head yet so subtly that it never softens the force–“Jump in the Fire” almost begs for a crowd shout and sing along. “Whiplash” is ridiculously fast and catchy, justifying its title. “Seek and Destroy” slows down a bit to introduce a low crunch, “The Four Horseman” hits the high notes to thunder in the apocalypse, “Motorbreath” gives drummer Lars Ulrich room to gallop in with the kick drum and “Metal Militia” gives us a dated and rather cheesy outro by way of celebration of Metal’s praises but it is notable for Hetfield’s shriek-growl vocal approach that worked so well for  later metal songs like Exodus’s “Bonded by Blood.”

13)Dio: Holy Diver (1983)

Dio probably has the best pipes of any singer in Metal’s history. He had sang for bands like Rainbow and led up post-Ozzy Black Sabbath for a series of solid records and at least one classic (Heaven and Hell). His self-titled band delivered another series of solid metal records in the 1980s, the highpoint of which was Holy Diver. Released the same year as Metallica’s debut, it differs quite differently in approach. Dio never conceded to Thrash or Speed Metal–with vocals that soar so strongly, why hide them behind noise or condense them into a corner with technical and intense riffs? Dio delivers pure Power Metal in the vein of Iron Maiden but without the fantastical instrumental scope; his years in straightforward rock and roll kept his focus on delivering fast, full, but concise songs. The lyrics are littered with swords, dragons, rainbows, messiah figures, and other Fantasy tropes but if anyone can make you feel those as real it’s Dio. The title track here deserves to be on in anyone’s short list of all time metal song classics. “Rainbow in the Dark” even makes the omnipresent keyboard of the eighties rock in a metal vein. There’s not a weak song here: “Straight Through the Heart,” “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” and “Stand Up and Shout,” stand even today as metal songs that can deliver the goods in a heavy manner yet can be sung along with.

14) Megadeth: Peace Sells, But Who’s Buyin? (1986)

In many ways, Megadeth is less accessible than their thrash counterparts. Metallica’s broach of the mainstream drew a wide audience even to their earlier work and Slayer’s overall image and consistency of intensity has made them an institution among metalheads as their entire catalog draws a new generation of teenagers into the fold every year. Megadeth on the other hand is an odd combination of these various aspects, often to their detriment. Mustaine’s vocals are simply odd–it’s doubtful that even the most ardent Megadeth fan ranks them as “great.” But they work for the band and their instrumental in the overall sound of their unique approach at thrash. Upon being exiled from Metallica before their first official release, Mustaine formed his own band and unleashed every blazing riff saved up in his arsenal onto their debut Killing is My Business…and Business is Good. There are great riffs on that record, sometimes two and three competing lead sections intertwining together to near-overkill. Once that announcement of his guitar prowess was behind him, Mustaine and the guys crafted an actual classic album–Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? The guitars are still fast and technical, but they have more room to breathe and thus actual songs begin to emerge in fast-paced bursts. Impending nuclear devastation is a lifelong concern and worry of Mustaine’s and he’s written roughly 60 songs or more pointing to that fear over the past 3 decades. That concern itself isn’t as bluntly evinced on this classic record but the overall fear of an unwanted global meltdown simply hangs over the entire thing. Hopelessness leading to regretful drunken driving in “Wake Up Dead,” and the witchcraft-tinged “The Conjuring” are intros to the centerpiece of a title song which announces itself with one of the most classic bass lines of all time, a sound familiar to a generation of MTV viewers who didn’t even know who the band was. The title song is an indictment of an entire system but sarcastically so; “Devil’s Island” more effectively indicts at least one part of the system in its meditation on capital punishment. “I Ain’t Superstitious” reinserts the blues into metal, an influence that thrash metal had consciously avoided but which works here. They follow that with a return to classical influence and pure speed on “My Last Words.” Peace Sells is the best and most consistent record in the bands catalogue, one that deserves a spot in any examination of the history of metal. Its flaws work as part of its appeal. Megadeth would make a few further classic metal records though the power in the youthful creative burst here has rarely been matched since.

15) Slayer: Reign in Blood (1986)

Nothing could likely have prepared listeners for the intensity and terror of hearing Reign in Blood for the first time in 1986. When Tom Araya, Kerry King, and company entered into the studio with producer Rick Rubin, nothing in their noisy and rough approach at proto-black metal had quite hinted at the full power of the thrash metal they would throw down on Reign and forever after. Moments in the previous Hell Awaits had shown Slayer could be scary, but from the moment Araya unleashes the soul-shredding shriek that opens the albums first song, “Angel of Death,” and Kerry King immediately launches into an insanely fast yet technical riff, listeners are pulled into something that had not been heard on record before. The first half of the album just builds relentlessly upon itself–faster and faster, harder and harder, heavier and heavier. King plays so fast that it becomes an athletic work-0ut for him to keep up with his own riffs. Lombardo lays down an intense rhythmic drum beat and Araya manages to bark and sing lyrics that keep up with the beat even when that becomes ridiculously hard to do, as in “Necrophobic.” No matter how heavy the songs become, the lyrics remain audible as Araya belts out his and King’s written words detailing the horror in daily life and history, a down-to-earth terror far more grounded (and therefore often uncomfortable) than those depicted in Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath songs. There are a few songs that slow things down in the middle of the record just enough to keep the train on the tracks however perilously so and then barely over the half-hour mark the band brings things to a close with the title track, marked by a (literally) thunderous intro in which listeners likely picture the downpour as King builds up to one last insanely difficult, technical, heavy, ridiculously fast riff. Slayer isn’t for everyone, and it’s hard to imagine the type of person who can only listen to stuff like this, but the darkness of the entire package works in that anything this fast and terrifying sonically can be rounded off and delivered in no other imaginable way. Reign comes off not as a celebration of terrible things but more as an observation of them and a cathartic purging of them. Slayer would deliver a few other classic metal albums in succession to this one (South of Heaven, Seasons in the Abyss) which sought to work by introducing a tad more melody and dialing back the speed, likely with the knowledge that repetition of the same album was pointless and outdoing it was out of the question. More than any of their peers, Slayer have unapologetically continued to do what they set out to do here–play fast, thrash metal with no concessions.

16) Metallica: Master of Puppets (1986)

Master of Puppets caps off the trilogy of Metallica’s classic era. Cliff Burton’s last record before his untimely death, the record showcases the culmination of what the band was building to and capable of. Kill ‘Em All had been the result of a young band kicking out of the gate to introduce a new way of doing rock to the world; they followed that up with an album that introduced song structure, lyrical consciousness and focus, and a better sense of melody with Ride the Lightning. Metallica had come into their own as a band that would play real metal without muddying it up with false attempts at shock or occult, instead crafting songs that told stories or addressed real issues. Master of Puppets brings it all together with an added hugeness of scope. Three songs on Puppets break the eight-minute mark and the rest are all well over five. Where the same year’s thrash statement made by Slayer in Reign in Blood was a quick, brutal assault, Puppets was a concentrated, epic meditation. Incorporating more of the European classical influences that were becoming important to the next stage of metal than arguably any of their predecessors, Metallica produced musical pieces that mixed full-on thrash breakdowns with epic guitar solos, quiet melodies, and intermittent beauty. The title track showcases every musician’s full potential and stands as one of the five most important heavy metal songs of all time. Metallica turns their social criticism from the death penalty focus of Lightning to another favorite subject of metal–war– in “Disposable Heroes,” and creates an authentic way to do a ballad in metal without condescending into power-ballad superficiality in “(Welcome Home)Sanitarium.” From the opening roar of “Battery” to the extended instrumental close of “Orion,” Master of Puppets stands as the single best work Metallica has ever done–And Justice for All would be a suitable epilogue to this trilogy of classic work and then Metallica would step fully into the mainstream very much akin to how Judas Priest had in British Steel with their self-titled “Black Album” in the 1990s. Metallica remain solid musicians with decent work but they would never quite be the metal band that had been in the eighties.

17) Guns N” Roses: Appetite For Destruction (1987)

Whereas Motley Crue released the classic Shout at the Devil at the beginning of (or arguably before) the pop-metal bandwagon and thus shouldn’t be overlooked or lumped in with sub-par copycats, Guns N’ Roses delivered their classic debut Appetite for Destruction at the height (and near-end) of the hair metal fervor…yet what they presented audiences with was something much better than what they were used to. Appetite uses the same basic playbook that the hit pop-metal of the time was working from, but it did everything better than the competition and it reinserted nasty heavy blues-riffs, trimmed the candy-coated sheen, turned up the attitude and brought back the danger. Appetite was looser and noisier and rocked harder than anything in popular metal had since Shout at the Devil had created the blueprint for the sub-genre. Slash embodied the guitar hero but in a way that was effortless and jaded, practically asking you to not to bother learning guitar because the train was off the tracks already anyway. Axl was crazy but no one knew how much quite yet. The band was drunk and drugged-up to the point that if they all had been master musicians it wouldn’t have worked, so who knows if anyone was really talented–it was just raw and it worked in much the same way late 1970s unpolished punk rock had worked. A lot of the anger, rock, and destruction is unhinged yet highly listenable: “Out to Get Me,” “Mr. Brownstone,” “Nighttrain.”  Somehow the band managed to inject pure pop magic into the mess and deliver classics like “Sweet Child O Mine” as well. “Welcome to the Jungle” is the last great LA mainstream metal song of the era and demolishes most of what came before it. GNR would flash a few great songs off and on following their debut but would never match the greatness of a record that seemed to just emerge accidentally out of the burnt-out Sunset strip milieu.

18) Death: Human (1991)

People argue about who the first or the creator of any genre is, and death metal is no exception. Many give credit to Chuck Schuldiner, who was the lead- guitarist and vocalist for Death. His band’s iconic logo and name itself certainly helps his candidacy stick as a top choice and the band’s seminal Scream Bloody Gore record in 1987 pretty much summed up a coherent vision of what such a sub-genre was all about and it became the blueprint to which most other death metal bands followed from thereafter. Death’s own work actually got better, pushing the boundaries of the what would seem highly limited genre. Schuldiner’s playing got exceedingly more technical and intense, yet his riffs retained a great sense of melody lost on many of his counterparts. His vocals never sought to change from the intentionally rough and ugly bark of the death metal growl, yet they remained clear enough as to be mostly discernible. Human is the band’s strongest work in that the playing, vocals, and lyrics all coalesce into a seminal statement. Moving from the mere gross-out lyrical content of Gore, Human instead tackles real issues and problems, especially those of a dark nature: Suicide Machine” and “Together as One,” deal with their subject matters bluntly but without reveling in them in a shock and awe manner. Schuldiner’s lyrics simply work for his sound without a sense of needless exploitation, a feat lost on imitators like Cannibal Corpse. Songs like “Cosmic Sea” even manage to introduce proggy, dream-like textures without subduing the sound or compromising the genre. “Vacant Planets” opens up enough for almost arena-ready solos. Human stands as the prime example of Schuldiner’s death-metal forefather qualifications and as a testament to what the often derided, misunderstood and lambasted sub-genre of Death Metal is capable.

19) Monster Magnet: Spine of God (1992)

The Doom and Stoner-Rock sub-genre of heavy metal can often have a very specific and limited appeal when it revels in its own excess (as Monster Magnet, albeit effectively, did on their follow up to this record 25…Tab or as the sludgier angrier High on Fire often do). Yet when it’s used as a grounding texture for other things to spring off of, it can be a breath of fresh air as it is on Monster Magnet’s terrific debut Spine of God. A mixture of Black Sabbath, winking Spinal Tap, Jimi Hendrix, Alice Cooper, and a dose of grunge, Monster Magnet’s first record is so silly yet so arty at the same time that you must either love it or hate it. It thrusts all of the tropes of metal into a blender and plays even the jokiest results as straightforward. The music is fuzzy where even the coolest riff is druggy; Wyndorf’s vocals are like a clearer more melodic Lemmy but his lyrics are a stoned geek treasure trove of monster movies, bad trips, comic books, eastern mythology, and metal shows. Later Magnet records would turn up the volume and drop a lot of the fuzzy-noise, glamming it up to often excellent results but their debut is simply the band doing what they want regardless of what others might want to hear. Opener “Pill Shovel” is the missing link between Black Sabbath and Type O Negative. “Zodiac Lung” subverts metal to a sort of “sounds from a background radio” while druggy folk music barely pushes it away. “Snake Dance” is as close to full-tilt as the haze gets but it rocks as such quite effectively. “Sin’s a Good Man’s Brother” hints at the blues through a layer of haze. “Ozium” tucks listeners in by closing with a metal interpreted dose of dream-pop. The entire record is engineered to sound like a hazy attempt at rocking out and it’s done so well that even a tee-totaller can appreciate it.

20) Rage Against the Machine: Rage Against the Machine  (1992)

When rap and metal fuse it is almost always a terrible thing. Such a hybrid has produced arguably the worst metal band in history to have their moment in the sun (Limp Bizkit). Yet despite all of the pitfalls, the melding has produced at least one remarkable band and that is Rage Against the Machine. Rage delivered a series of excellent records the best of which was their fist, their self-titled debut. What makes Rage work so well first and foremost is the intelligence, passion, and intensity of their lyricist, rapper, and lead-singer Zack de la Rocha. Taking a cue from hip hop and punk-rocks best moments, Zack approaches the mic with something to say. Using the power of the most intense and stripped down aspects of the genres the band blurs together, Rocha uses the sound to augment messages he must get out while has the time, saying things others were too timid to, using music as a force to address that which too many politicians had abandoned. Yet for this to work as great music, the politics and message has to be backed up by chords and sounds good enough to get listeners listening and hooks catchy enough to stick. Guitarist Tom Morello helps to deftly accomplishes this by being a virtuoso on the guitar, transforming his axe into a combination guitar and turntable, playing chords and making noises that no one had ever done on a guitar before. All of the noise and bluster is authentic though, something that helps the entire package lodge into its audience intensely. “Killing in the Name,” strips down those emotions to so basic a level that almost any teenager could relate, and then they were apt to stick around for the complexity and power found in the musical indictments of “Know Your Enemy,” and “Wake Up.” Rage Against the Machine were a singular force when they were at their height and no imitator ever came close to their power–arguably in hip hop Dead Prez carried the banner in their own manner later and System of a Down has occasionally touched on a similar ethos in their own way, but in “message music” and in the rap-metal hybrid, Rage remains unparalleled.

 

songs: “Bonded By Blood”- Exodus; “Caught in a Mosh” – Anthrax

Okay, I feel the need to make a major revision to a statement made in my Metal! article posted here, thus here is this addendum.

See, as I described the artist at the fourth spot, Dio, I remarked that to capture the sound of metal for that particular time it had to be Dio or Iron Maiden and that I’d pick Dio over Maiden “any day of the week.” I massively sleighted the Maiden on the entire list. This might seem irrelevant and pointless to non metal fans, spot on to a few metal fans, and downright heresy to a huge number of metal fans. I’ve changed my mind about it enough to warrant this post.

Now, no slight is now intended to Dio, the group or the singer who gave it its namesake, Ronnie James Dio. I still think he was probably the coolest and best vocalist in metal and it was sad to see him pass last year. But I was wrong to overlook Maiden; my previous experience with their music  was a bit of their “Number of the Beast” record and “Piece of Mind.” For some reason, I stumbled into listening to their 2010 record, “The Final Frontier.” I liked it enough to backtrack to listen to their classic work;   to “Somehwhere in Time” and “The Best of the Beast” …which led to listening to the self-titled debut, “Powerslave,” “Fear of the Dark,” “Live After Death,” “Dance of Death,” and so on. In short, I haven’t listened to this much metal in a very long time and I have no idea how I overlooked this massive catalogue of excellent material, music that can appeal to metal fans, classic rock fans, pretty much anyone who likes great musicians and can dig a little fantasy and cheese. Because seriously, this is often cheesy stuff but I mean that in the best possible way. This is science fiction paperback cheesy that delivers excitement even when you know its “pulp,” and then you love it even more. Amidst the songs about sorcerors, warriors, battlefields, time travel, haunted woods and the like though, Maiden sneaks in heartfelt ballads about enjoying life, love, family and friends, about recognizing that you are living in the “Golden Years” already. They critique war, politics, and figures who misuse and abuse religion. They tell concept ablums about  the “seventh son of a seventh son” or narrate the life of Alexander the Great. Maiden have a wide range of excellence in their catalogue and appear to have stayed consistent and grown throughout about 30 years of music so that’s pretty impressive. And their album last year? It went number 1 in something like 30 seperate countries! For a band that hasn’t received mainstream attention in the US since the mid-eighties, that’s quite a shock, but after hearing songs like the album closer “When the Wind Blows” I can see why they’re globally appreciated. Another band I completely overlooked on the best of list was Judas Priest, a band I knew only for “British Steel,” and their biggest hits. I listened to their ’70s albums which pretty much crafted the sound metal later became and then dug into their more mainstream fair to catch some of their popular highlights, and I’m now aware that they certainly deserved to make my list as well. So, of all of the “genre best” lists I”ve done so far, “Metal!” is the only one I would re-evaluate in hindsight, the only one I feel I missed the mark on. Rather than re-factor the list now though, I’ll work on an upcoming one to revisit Metal in the album format, highlighting 20 of the best Metal records of all time.

So, while on the subject of metal I feel I should mention some great metal that came out last year– metal didn’t make the cut on my “10 Best Albums of 2010” or “20 Best Songs of 2010” list, and since I did a “Hip Hop in 2010” post to make up for some of the almost-but-not-quite rap records  last year but not for metal, I figure it is now time to rectify that. So in addition to “The Final Frontier,” these are metal records from 2010 that are worth checking out:

* Danzig – Deth Red Saboth

Danzig hasn’t released anything in six years and nothing near the highlights of his first four records in more than a decade; no longer with any major distribution and releasing his work on a small independant label with a limited budget could have resulted in a record no one heard. Hopefully that’s not the case, because “Deth Red Saboth” (ridiculous title aside) is his strongest effort in quite some time. He melds together his punk rock garage tendencies that started him in his days with the Misfits and Samhain to the evil-Elvis/spooky Jim Morrison power goth metal of his own band’s early work and produces some classic moments: the pounding epic “Hammer of the Gods,” the creepy ballad “On a Wicked Night,” the Danzig II style outake of “Black Candy.”

*Deftones – Diamond Eyes

Deftones have been very consistent and proved to have a staying power that hardly any of their contemporaries proved to have–emerging with the likes of Korn and Limp Bizkit in the nineties, Deftones proved to have much more style, skill, and substance than any of the “pimp rawk,” “mook rawk,” or nu-metal bands. Only Tool, System of a Down, and arguably Slipknot managed to build careers worthy of continuance from that era of metal popularity, but Deftones have always done their own thing and done it well, even with the occasional experimentation suceeding. “Diamond Eyes” is another strong record in their catalogue with melodic powerhouses like the title track, creeping tension laced songs like “You’ve Seen the Butcher,” and true to form metal jams like “Rocket Skates.”

* Ihsahn – After

I’m not sure what these guys are singing about, but what sends this record over the top for me is just the sheer sonic beauty found in such unexpected fusions. This record deserves your time if only for “A Grave Inversed,” a song which welds jazz saxophone of a frantic and technically magnificent caliber to black metal aggression. Metal Jazz fusion is something I never expected to hear, but this is a tremendous sound and the wildness of both artforms actual work remarkably well together. There are many other highlights from “After,” but I’m still processing that one.

* High on Fire – Snakes for the Divine

HOF records are always intense apocalyptic doom metal sessions to show off ridiculously heavy riffs which take unexpected turns. The lyrics and fvocals always match the sound, but that sound is what is important and those guitars are why you listen to the record. The latest album is no exception in doing what they do best, providing another hour of face-melting metal that detours enough to be a step in a different direction that the work last time around.