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Back at the tail end of last year, I interviewed The Watcher from Fen on the release of their career-defining opus Carrion Skies (Code666). The interview was written up and carried across four parts on Ghost Cult MagazineIn contradiction of current internet styles to have bite size pieces, here is the full transcript (and it is lengthy, cos we had a good old hour long chat, which is three to four times longer than most of the interviews I do). I’ve trimmed some of my waffle down, but other than that, here’s is the uncut version. 

As it’s a lengthy mofo, you might want to click “play” on the album. You might just have finished listening to it by the time you get to the bottom… If you don’t have it, you can find links to tracks interspersed throughout the text…

The WatcherI like Agalloch, I like some of the early Alcest, but it’s a bit of a lazy comparison I think, particularly with this new album, we’ve set ourselves apart from that. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m too close it?

I agree, though mate. Fen has always been heavier than those bands. You’ve always had that darker, harder side. A band like Alcest are all very “nice” and that…

I agree, and this is where a lot of this album was born from. I mean, touring with Agalloch for a month and they’re three guys and they do that stuff really well, but we don’t really want to sound like that. I mean, they’ve got that sound nailed, and we said we do need to define ourselves apart from this, we do need to really underline what we’re about. I like Heavy Metal. I want to play Heavy Metal. It sounds a bit Bad News, ha, I am Vim Fuego, but Heavy Metal, Heavy Metal, Heavy Metal.

It’s the new life cycle of a Metal musician… Digress and move away from where you started, expand and “mature”, before eventually coming back to metal

I love Heavy Metal. I listen to Heavy Metal. I mean… it’s Heavy Metal! You look at a band like Paradise Lost. When they start out they couldn’t be more Heavy Metal, then they get to 24, 25 years old and then they’re “Heavy Metal’s for losers! I’ve been listening to this for 10 years, it’s old hat, I’ve heard all there is to hear of this, it’s for bozos. I like Depeche Mode, let’s do that and let’s be all grown up” but then it goes full circle, and when they hit late 30’s they’re “God, I think I was a pretentious little twat back then, I actually do like Heavy Metal and I wasn’t anywhere near as clever as I thought I was when I went all experimental”. You see it a bit with the Norwegian scene, too, all that went ludicrously avant-garde in the late 90’s. It’s like they all went to university and thought “Ooh, I want to be clever now, what’s clever, well, heavy metal definitely isn’t, so…

Definitely – check out Holmes in Bloodbath. It sounds like he’s really enjoying himself, but yet on those mid-era PL albums… nah.

I thought One Second was an absolute disaster, but I revisited Draconian Times about six months ago, and I thought before I did “Ah, I know this album so well. It’s fairly polished, a bit bland, mid-90s’ melodic metal”, but I put it on and it’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. It’s so well written. I watched a few live videos from around that time, and they were poised to be the best metal band in the world around 1995. I reminded myself how exciting they were back then. Back then, it was like “This is the best band ever!” Then three years later they suddenly want to be all clever, and grown up and Depeche Mode. Fuck that.

I remember my brother saying “It’s not bad, it’s got some good songs”, but it’s thin. It’s thin, it doesn’t actually have many ideas, and it was an absolute wrong step forward.

The other side is, they, and others are intrinsically metal bands, but when they come out of it, they’re playing in a shallow pool, using a dearth of influences, the bigger, better bands, no doubt, but it’s a style of music where they don’t fully understand it…

Exactly. It is dabbling in something. It’s going “I’ve been listening to a load of synthy 80s new wave bands recently, we can do something with that”. And there’s a danger for bands to get really carried away, and I think this is what was happening with us. At the start of last year, the end of the year before, we’d done Dustwalker and me and our drummer had been listening to loads of Sad Lovers and Giants, The Chameleons and Snake Corps, all these bands, then in rehearsal I thought “turn the distortion off, put a bit chorus and delay on it and, oh, we can sound like that” and it’s easy to carried away with it when you’re playing one style so much. But to your ears, it’s a really fresh sound, and you’re like “Yes, we can do this!” and at points we were even talking about “Let’s do a whole album like this, a whole album with clean guitars.

It was only when we got back off tour with Agalloch that we realised we were getting carried away with it, that we’d got completely over-excited about the fact that we do listen to some non-metal stuff and we can do a passable version of it. But it’s not really enough, and we did have to put the brakes on and take a look of it, and say “Are we just playing a slightly rubbish version of The Chameleons with some guy shouting over it?”

And in all honesty, we were.

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We took a really objective step back and looked at it, and a lot of the stuff that was originally pencilled in to be on the album was binned off. We realised “We are going down a complete alleyway here, which we think is really clever, but we’ve just got carried away.” We got carried away and were disappearing up our own arses. Unfortunately, there’s bands out there who don’t take that step back until it’s too late, until it’s “Oh shit, we’re not as clever as we think we are”. But I can see it from the other side of the fence, that it’s easy to get swept up in it. Everyone gets whipped up into a fervour, and gets all “we can do it! This is so different! Look at how versatile we are!” Well, any competent musician can turn their hand to doing a vague version of another style, but doing it well is a different thing.”

That said, it’s quite a brave step, in a way, to go back. Reviews were good for Dustwalker, and it would have been safer option to follow Alcest’s footsteps, to push the ‘wave/gaze’ stuff and ditch the metal, or the black metal. It’s what a lot of people expected (feared?) you’d do

We were toying with the idea to make the band even more post-rock, even more atmospheric, and maybe it was a risk to go the other way. You see a lot of bands come out saying their new album is going to be “even more metal!” and for them it’s playing it safe, but I think the sort of genre we’re playing in and it’s the opposite effect. You look at where a lot of the the post-Black Metal bands, you look at where Alcest have gone, and it’s less metal with each release.

What do you think of the last WITTR? There’s no metal at all there…

Let’s be honest, it goes back to what I was saying earlier, it’s just a bit of dabbling. They’ve got some nice synths, and they’re thinking “Oo, I listen to a bit of Vangelis and a bit of ambient, I can do that” and the result is, I’ve listened to that album, and it’s a fairly pleasant ambient electronica album. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect from two good metal musicians with a good sense of melody trying their hand at a genre they’ve been dabbling in. It’s no more than that, and it certainly doesn’t transcend their earlier work. That’s just my opinion, and others may think differently.

Certainly for us, when we did this album, we did sit down when we came back off the tour and thought “What do we actually want to achieve with this” Dustwalker is a metal album, but we did go down a certain route – there’s a lot of atmospheric stuff on there, there’s a whole song on there that’s got no distorted guitars whatsoever. With this one, we thought “We’re in the mood for metal, we want to do some metal!” We’re an extreme metal band and it’s almost become a cliché for bands that are in the post-black metal scene to shed the trappings of black metal, and that’s not a game I’m interested in playing. I want to reassert our credentials as a metal band. Only time will tell if that’s a risky move for us or not.

How do you see Fen in terms of UK Black Metal scene, and where do you see your place in it? Is Fen “Black Metal”?

I think it would be disingenuous to say otherwise. I think there is a palpable UK black metal scene at the moment, it’s quite strong and I think, whether we like it or not, we are part of the UK black metal scene. We are a UK band and we play primarily black metal, but we have a stronger profile in Europe. In the UK, we’re probably overshadowed by Winterfylleth, Wodensthrone, A Forest of Stars; those are the main guys here.

Do you care what the reviews of Fen say, or are they irrelevant?

In this era of Web 2.0 anyone can hear the stuff. Reviews are important and serve a purpose, but anyone can hear it. People read a review and say “I’ll judge for myself, I’ll go on to Spotify now”. I think reviews act as a backdrop as a barometer as a general feeling rather than a litmus test, or a buyers guide, like they used to. I wonder what context reviews exist in these days? Reviews are not something I tend to get really hung up on, but it is useful to get a general feeling of where people see you and what the general opinion is but the proof is whether our listeners like it or whether new people come on board.

Do you care what fans think?

I do care, yes. First and foremost you have to write music that satisfies yourself, that is an absolute underlying fundament of being in a band, but then I think a band takes on a life of its own after a point. We’re on our fourth album , we seem to have quite a few people out there who support us and listen to us, and I think  it’d be disingenuous to say your audience, or the buyer, isn’t in mind when you’re putting together material for a new album. If people are willing to take the time and effort, and potentially money, to invest in your art, then there has to be an element of reciprocation there. And, again, when you’re playing live shows, you have to consider them. We are conscious of the fact we have listeners; it’s not like we’re a global phenomenon but we are aware, and if we put out a record and our established fans didn’t like it, I’d be really interested to know why. Have we lost our way, have we made a mistake? I think it’s only polite, isn’t it!?

By not being an overly touring type of band, does the audience become more distant? It’s not like you are a 5fDP, with 18 month tours for each album…

It isn’t. That’s not to say we wouldn’t like it to be. You ask, do we care (if people like it)… I enjoy doing this, I enjoy doing shows, we enjoy getting opportunities, and if more people are listening then there’s more opportunities to play larger shows, play festivals and things like that. If you’re in a band and you have an audience, you look to grow that audience, and it’s important. I think there are bands that are disingenuous, and they say “We just write for ourselves, and it’s a bonus if people choose to listen to us”, but if you’re playing live shows then you’re performing to an audience, you have to challenge that – are you just doing it for yourself, then? If you’re just doing it for yourself then just play your music loudly in the rehearsal room.

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To misquote Al Jourgensen, as soon as you play your music to anyone else, you’ve started to sell out.

I see that. It sounds like a nihilistic thing to say “We just in it for ourselves” and I think that’s dishonest. When you pick up a guitar when you’re 13 or 14 years old, you just want to rock the fuck out. You want to be the man! No matter how many permutations your musical endeavours go down, or whatever prisms you view yourself through as an artist the minute you’re going onto a stage and plugging into an amp that’s cranked up, there’s an element of that original instinct that kicks in, wanting to just rock out in front of a crowd, and I’m not going to lie about that just to make myself look a little bit cooler or more detached, or more intellectual.

OK, we have signifiers and caveats to it, oh, we’re playing atmospheric post-black metal… ultimately, we’re playing loud rock music. That’s an underlying fact. And a part of that is an audience. It’s an important part of being in a band. No one in a band can look me in the eye and tell me they enjoy playing in front of fuck all people. That’s not true. You can lie to yourself with your “there were only 2 people there, but those 2 people really loved it”. So… ?

If you’re going to be contrary, if you’re going to be “we don’t care what the audience thinks”, you must start to write stuff people hate. I remember in my old band, in Skaldic Curse, we started working on a 25 minute long progressive black metal epic, and we were “Oh, this is really going to piss people off”… Hang on a minute, where’s this thinking leading? Are we getting so wrapped up in trying to do what people don’t expect of us? Is this a different side of the same coin? Almost saying “we don’t care what people think, we just want to write challenging music”, but then you are thinking about what the audience think, you’re just looking at it through a different end of the telescope. It’s an unignorable part of the artistic process, unless you are going to record music on your own at home and only listen to it alone. You go back to what you said Al Jourgensen said, the minute anyone else enters the picture, even band mates, you’re sharing, and there’s consideration for the listener. And I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t know why that has to somehow compromise the purity of the art.

Ah, but it’s part of the Black Metal / kvlt metal thing to have that mentality and mindset…

Yes, there’s always the isolationist, thing, but if you look at the second wave of black metal, Euronymous still wanted to shift records. He ran a record label. He wanted to sell records from a shop. It was under the guise of spreading the message of the horned lord, or whatever, but he wanted an audience.

And let’s not pretend De Mysteriis is unlistenable shit…

Exactly. It’s a brilliant record. Euronymous wanted an audience. He’d do tours. Mayhem were touring around Eastern Europe in 1990, 1991, and they were one of the first second wave black metal bands out there doing it. And there are some real headbanging moments on De Mysteriis… take the riff on ‘Pagan Fears’, that’s a proper “fists in the air” riff. The mid-section of ‘Freezing Moon’… that’s a head-banging classic, and that’s why I don’t think considering your audience has to be a compromise at all. I think there’s some dishonesty in that level of thinking because you can be inspired, you can write with integrity and you can still consider your audience. From my own perspective, I think it’s polite too, and if you’ve got to a point where your band has a fanbase, then your band has overtaken you. It’s no longer yours and yours alone. And I know John from Agalloch gets really upset with this, he gets upset with fans having a sense of entitlement, and that’s fair enough, that’s fine, but these people are buying and consuming your music, and it’s a sense that’s born from them enjoying your music, and while that can be annoying, in a sense, you can listen to them and take some stuff on board. There is a line, but if they’re genuine fans, buying physical releases and merchandise, and they’re investing in your band and your music, then you owe it to them to take them into some consideration.

So, back to the Fen album, you actually had a producer this time…

Yes, Greg Chandler. You’ll probably know of him from Esoteric. If you don’t know the band, check them out. If you’re in the mood for extreme atmospheric doom, they really are the alpha and the omega of that. We played with Greg a couple of times, he seemed very professional, very switched on kind of guy and our drummer had worked with him before, doing some recording. As part of our coming back off tour and sitting back thinking about how we were going to approach the album thing, we really tried to kick ourselves up the arse a little bit. I think we’d got a bit comfortable, and we decided we wanted to really move ourselves out of our comfort zone.

Everything we’d recorded up until now, we’ve recorded ourselves, so as part of really giving this a shake up it was to work with an external producer, and Greg was top of the list. We approached him, told him how we wanted to record the album, which is drums live and retain as much of the live stuff as we can, and he was absolutely fine with that. And I have to say, he was really, really good. He was really focused he had really great balance between pushing us and relaxed and chilled out. He never gave us any sense he was getting frustrated with the progress, there was never any sense of him switching off, he was always on it, and these were long days, man, 12/13 hour days, and that’s hard work. He was really good, and it pushed us in terms of performance and thinking. It helped that he’s also a perfectionist geek, so there were times we could experiment with trying sounds out, and i think  the results speak for themselves, and you can hear something new in the album for us in terms of the delivery.

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Carrion Skies pulls all component aspects of what “Fen” is together, but still takes it somewhere different…

Trying to keep it fresh but still keeping that Fen sound? It sort of evolved that way. We talk about writing naturally, but you’re always conscious of what has come before. We don’t want to copy or repeat ourselves, and we wanted to go back down that more metal path, a bit heavier, a bit more intense, but also a more proggier path too. We’ve always had elements of that in there, and the 3 of us have played in other, more progressive acts, so it’s always been in there, in our DNA since day 1. We are a band with a bit of experience, and we were very certain about what we wanted to play when we started the band, particularly myself and Grungyn, and we tapped into that original vision and that overarching goal of how we want Fen to sound. It’s like something on the horizon, achieving that vision, it’s coming ever closer.

You don’t feel you’ve got it? Is this not your defining moment?

I’m my own harshest critic, I’m always thinking about how we can improve, where we go next. It’s like chasing a high you can never quite get. The minute you hit it, you achieve it, you have to turn round as a band and say “We’ve achieved it, we’re done, let’s do something else”. We’re striving for something, constantly pushing ourselves, constantly striving. I’m confident there’s more to come. There are yet more heights for us to scale. I’m not over-ambitious, nor do I want to belittle the work we’ve done, I’m proud of our canon, but I’m confident we can deliver even more.

Did it feel a case of “This is our fourth album, it’s time to put up or shut up”?

Every band has a shelf-life, and I don’t think we can keep doing this forever, particularly in this particular guise or method of expression. For me, once we’ve finished an album it’s “that’s done, we’ve achieved that, what’s next”. I’m not one to rest on my laurels and sit back and think that’s great. This is a creative outlet. You look at some bands, and they’re essentially just touring  best ofs, and they tend to be working bands, and it’s their career, but this is acreative pursuit and once and album is finished, it’s on to what’s next. The minute the creative fires are burnt out its time to move on and do something else, but for us it’s still there. I promised myself i was going to take some time out once this was done as we worked so hard on it, and it’s been an intense couple of years, I was going to take 3 monts off to recharge, but it was a lie. I’ve already been writing. It is a bit of a compulsion, I can’t switch it off… I’ll be watching TV and I’ll have an idea, and go and work on it, and two hours later you’re immersed in it. Which is great in some ways, but it’s like being a druggie chasing a hit, but nothing beat s it for em, that buzz of creativity, bringing notions and ideas to life.

Ha, that’s the opposite to me. Sounds like you’re always on, when I do it, I do it in patches, like a week of full on, then I drop back in and tweak only.

I’m like that with lyrics. Lyrics seem to come in hits – machine gun bursts. I can empathise with that, but musically I cant switch off. Maybe it’s a deep-seated psychological problem, but I cannot sit still and relax, I always have to be doing something, so rather than fight it, now I just feed it when it comes. I am trying to teach myself to take breaks and come up for air every now and then, like when we were wrapped up in doing all the guitar-wave stuff, I think you can lose sight of the bigger picture.

One of the things about the album, is, and Richie picked up on it in his review in Ghost Cult, is that there is an emotional and musical journey to Carrion Skies. Things do things for a reason…

That’s hugely important. A musical journey is how we’ve always described our music. You want to listener to feel like they’ve travelled somewhere with the song, I think that’s important, I really do. The loud/quiet dynamic is something that’s tricky. On Dustwalker we wanted to deliberately avoid the loud/quiet/loud thing and make a song either completely loud or completely quiet, and that was the overall musical challenge for that, but we’ve gone back to having songs that flow between moving and heavier parts. It’s a tricky one, but I don’t think the transitions and juxtapositions aren as binary as with others. I think with the quiet bits, it’s almost like they are breathing, and there is an ebb and flow, and I think the next challenge we might set ourselves as a writing unit is to make the transitions a bit more distended and less binary.

Is it emotionally draining? A lot of black metal just “happens”, but there’s a definite emotional path through the new album….

It can be exhausting, but in a cathartic fashion. On a very prosaic level, playing this is very demanding; playing live especially. It can be draining, but I don’t resent it as it’s an exultant cathartic outpouring, rather than something being leeched away from you. This type of music, and you’re doing this style of vocal while playing, and you’re forced to engage in the lyrics each time on a fundamental level. There’s a lot of anger on a deeper level on this new album, and you’re staring that right in the face every time you play one of the songs. It’s fair to say it is draining but in a very positive way.

Have your lyrical themes change as you’ve gone on?

We have. The last couple of albums Dustwalker and Epoch were quite personal, it was internal thoughts being expressed as description, the internal being expressed via metaphors from the external – the inner landscape being presented as an outer landscape. And we really furrowed that plough extensively on Dustwalker, and that led to a lot of the lyrical themes being quite spiritual and transient discussions. This album is going back to The Malediction Fields and is a lot more of an external reflection on mankind, the follies of the human spirit, and how we engage in endless repeating cycles tending towards self-destruction and failure and misery. People have said how lyrically it speaks of ancient times, but we’re trying to draw that line, because we’re here in 2014 and we exist in a really technocratic age and society but, really, the same failings that have plagued humanity since the birth of civilisation still occur and continue to haunt us, and that’s where a lot of the thought processes have gone on this album.

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It’s worrying, that we’ve had thousands of years of “people”, yet we’re right back at people beheaded due to beliefs, the political right wing is increasing in popularity…

It’s worrying. I was talking to Gunnar (Sauermann) and he was saying he thinks the new Winterfylleth album has some similar ideas on there, and he was saying is there something going on in England? Is there a problem, and is it serving as an inspiration? And the answer is not consciously, we’re not a political band, I have no interest in discussing politics, and in fact I’m sick to the back teeth of this whole English Heritage act concept that keeps getting thrown at us, but I suppose, subliminally, the entire discourse of society at the moment and I don’t want to sound dramatic,  but it’s like a house of cards, and day by day there’s more news stories, and there’s the whole rise of UKIP…

People don’t learn. Everyone that lives in the present day thinks we’re more civilized and advanced that the past, and it’s not true. It’s a lie. Just because we’re more technologically advanced than we were 50 years ago, 500 years ago, 1000 years ago, human mentality and physiology doesn’t evolve that quickly. I use the phrase, every person is 3 good meals away from a riot. We haven’t advanced. It’s just a Western perspective, too, as there’s vast tracts of this planet that still live in medieval conditions. What worries me in the last 6 to 12 months is that there’s some very unpleasant discourse that is becoming increasingly mobilized and that is the first step to badness. I went to the Imperial War Museum the other day, and it was absolutely packed, so we went to the holocaust exhibition. Now, a visit to that is always going to be sobering, but looking at it through the prism of where our political discourse is going at the moment, it sent a chill down my spine. The holocaust isn’t some evil entity that happened in biblical times, or distant past, it was only 70 years ago. It’s within living memory, and it started with slightly rabble-rousing discourse about “others”. That’s how it starts. A charismatic demagogue talking about others gradually normalizing and demonizing through political discourse. And how does it finish? With people being herded into purpose-built execution chambers by the thousand. I’m not saying that’s exactly where we’re headed, but we have to be careful, people hear that opinion again and it normalizes and it causes me a level of unease.

On top of that, are we guilty of middle-class apathy? Something that allows a party like UKIP to win Clacton, which is just up the road from here

I don’t want to get too bogged down in this, because my band isn’t about this, but if you’re ruminating on human failure, you’re ruminating on human tendencies towards conflict, and violence and aggression and this is happening now. There’s a lot of misplaced anger, saying “look at the different, look at the others” and it’s always “the foreigners”, they’re an easy target, but look at where the real problem is, and it’s in the paymasters of this country, they’re playing people like puppets. But what is quite interesting, though, is that a lot of the lyrics for the album were written over a year ago, and this wasn’t happening yet, and it’s since I’ve written them, now I’m even more heightened to what’s going on. The first two tracks, ‘(Our Names Written In Embers) Beacons of War’, ‘Beacons of Sorrow’, it’s human beings are just this endless cycle of conflict, of war, and then the obligatory introspection and “we can’t let that happen again” and the ten years later the same thing happens again.

It’s a propensity for, a lust for slaughter, yet nobody ever “wins”, nobody gets anything out of it, it doesn’t have to be that loads of normal human beings get killed or wounded and then that’s it. As a species it hasn’t stopped. We’re so called evolved with our ipads and all this bollocks, and people are being massacred on a daily basis. Is it ever going to stop? And that’s the over-arching theme for the album. You look at the title, you know, Carrion Skies, and that’s the future, that’s the future of man. It’s just  a blood-drenched, carcass-strewn horizon.

Throughout it, I don’t think nihilism is the right word, I think there’s a sense of furious despair. ‘Menhir’ is about sacrifice, because on the other side of the coin you’ve got this propensity towards sacrifice and subjugation. You talk about middle class apathy to political environment, and this is people just giving up and surrendering, surrendering their responsibility. Why are people so keen to throw away their responsibility and tether themselves to some abstract yoke? Why? Why sacrifice themselves towards ideals and values that only do them harm? It beggars belief.

In the lyrics, you’re addressing those concepts, and you have to consider what’s going on around you. And it’s all well and good to mull over these things on a higher-level abstract point of view, but when things are happening at a slightly lower level, more local point of view, and you do look at it with a sharpened perspective and it’s happening now, it’s happening around us as we speak. Society is built on foundations of sand, the illusion of freedom, and easy comfort and distraction and that’s the only thing keeping people from marching into the streets and burning things.

Coming back to the music, it has an almost fantasy/fantastical feel, a sense of other, something you get immersed in, you join and get drawn into the song as you go through it…

Immersion and escapism, and I don’t think escapism is a dirty word. People listen to music for a variety of reasons and one of those is to take yourself away from the day to day for a little bit, you can take yourself to another world. And if you’re writing 12 minute long songs with lots of guitar textures, it’s something you’d hope the music would do that for the listener. I don’t want to be  writing background, I don’t want to be writing backgrounds to somebody’s trip to the shops.

But isn’t that how music is consumed, now, it’s how it changes… ipod shuffle, the death of the “album”, the rise of Youtube and Spotify playlists… Skid Row were chipping in the other day that they’re no longer doing albums, because no one listens to albums, though maybe that’s just no one listens to their albums any more

I still listen to the first the two albums quite regularly…!

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And rightly so… but there’s bands like TRC, who just release EPs and singles. Is the lifespan of “the album” drawing to an end?

It depends, and it’s all quite subjective, because you can get a band like Moonsorrow that do an EP that’s 58 minutes long, and then you get Slayer do an album that’s 28 minutes long. The issue blurs the lines a little bit, but it’s just an expression of music. Album, EP, single, it’s just a self-contained unit of music and it depends on what your style is and how long it takes you tell that story. I don’t think the album is going to die, in effect that “the album” doesn’t have a defined existence. People are still going to release music in a discrete unit of how long it needs to be to tell that story.

We all have our personal definition of what an album is, 6 or 7 songs, 60 minutes, or however long it’s going to be, that’s not a hard and fast rule. What you’ll see as the digital age gathers pace is that people might start releasing collections of EPs, and have more regular release cycle of shorter pieces of music, whether to keep interest sustained, or because it’s now easier to record things yourself. Equally there are certain bands and genres where the album is a necessary vehicle to deliver what they want to deliver, and certainly for a band like Fen where we write quite long songs, we want people to become immersed in our songs, and you wouldn’t write an EP or a single.

An album for us is an important way of actually spreading atmosphere. If anything we might be in danger of the opposite. We actually recorded too much music for a single CD and one of the bonus tracks had to come out, but at the time that was part of the album. I think the boundaries of what might make an album will dissipate. If we’re not tied to the limits of a CD, then a 90 minute album is fine. If that’s what we need to fully to tell the story, or evoke the atmosphere we’re trying to evoke, then so be it. This is out, all the boundaries crumble.

True, and if you look at Schammasch, their album is 85 minutes…

The last Dødsengel album is 2 ½ hours long and it’s really, really good, and that really underlines the creative power of some bands. If you have a band that says they’re going to do a 2 ½ hour long album, and they pull it off, fair play to them. I think bands will feel less beholden to the album cycle, rather than here’s 10 songs, 45 minutes, bang, here we go.

Maybe you think “Do you know what, I feel really inspired this year, so we could put together ourselves a good hour and halfs worth of an album here”. Or, another band might think, we’re the sort of band that thrives on short, sharp shock, let’s do a series of 4 track EP’s. It should be liberating.

With digital, downloading, it’s changed the way music is presented and digested, and consumed, I think it’s pointless to rail against it. Bands should see it for the liberating creating force it could be.

 

You can buy the Fen Carrion Skies CD from the Aural webstore 

 

The first releases of 2014 are already hitting hard-drives, yet the dust of 2013 is only just settling.  As always, the rock rolls forever on but just what did 2013 mean for metal? Finally a new band stepped up to head the crowd and be accepted as a festival headliner (though that won’t happen until later this year), but looking at each sub-genre of the great expansive ocean of metal, what is the state of the play?

Power/Heavy Metal: Whereas 2012 brought to the table 3 true gems of the genre (Dragonforce ‘Power Within’, Sabaton ‘Carolus Rex’ and Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody and the spectacular ‘Ascending To Infinity’) as a genre it all but spluttered and died like the exhaust of a battered and unloved Ford Capri this year. Powerwolf failed to hit previous heights, Wintersun’s comeback was nearly as embarrassing an anti-climax as Prince Naseem’s, Avantasia continued to climb further inside Tobias Sammat pipe and moved further away from the joyously cheesy epics of Metal Opera I & II, Gloryhammer were just too ironic for their own good and left the songs behind while Rhapsody of Fire saw Luca’s gauntlet and turned tail and ran home to mummy with nary a thought of picking it up. Only Hell and Helloween brought worthwhile offerings to table of a genre that is a true (non)guilty pleasure of mine. Several offered up and praised Atlantean Kodex but its ploddy meanderings turned me to a conscientious objector rather than a soldier ready for war. That said, 2014 looks set to kick off with a plethora of true metal with Iced Earth’s powerful ‘Plagues of Babylon’ looking to head a pack of first-quarter releases including Within Temptation and Dark Forest, while the aforementioned Dragonforce, Sabaton and Luca are working on much anticipated follow-ups as you read this.

Rock/Mainstream Metal: Volbeat, Alice In Chains, Motorhead, Ghost, Alter Bridge amongst others proved that you don’t have to be metal to induce the claw while Avenged Sevenfold claimed top spot in the charts around the world (with an album that’s better than you think it is), Five Finger Death Punch spat out 2 albums’ worth of headbanging Neanderthal anthems, Killswitch Engage lit a fire up their own arses and Trivium released a career defining opus. Closer to home Bring Me The Horizon continued to clean up their act, and the plaudits, with a very credible release. Meanwhile, on the fringes of my radar The Defiled impressed with ‘Daggers’ and Crossfaith with their ‘Zion’ EP, while Asking Alexandria inexplicably sold a lot of records too despite producing one of the most vanilla metalcore albums since, well, their last one. In 2013 mainstream metal put itself back on the map.

Pink is the new black…

Black Metal: Deafheaven and Fen aside, were there any black metal offerings of note? If there were, none made any lasting impression. Indeed, strictly speaking, should either or both be classed as black metal these days with musical aesthetics more in line with indie and shoegaze than Bathory, Darkthrone or Mayhem? Whereas  the only other offering to impress, Skeletonwitch, sit firmly in the blackened thrash camp for me. The further down the line we get, the more the classics of the genre stand head-and-shoulders above their inferior (and usually derivative) successors, and even those former champs still hanging on, Gehenna and Satyricon for example, are worthy purchases for insomniacs only. Black metal was NEVER supposed to be boring. So, what next, or is Black metal on its Death bed, croaking like Abbath after 666 woodbines, like Death metal had been for the last 15 years+? Black Metal truly needs something dynamic to reinvent and reinvigorate a dying and stale genre.

Post-Metal: Some great stuff out there this year. Many were turned on by The Ocean’s ‘Pelagial’, Storm of Light and Correction House’s ‘Last City Zero’ and I can respect that even if they didn’t float my personal boat, but these ears were massaged by the brooding aggression of Light Bearer and Cult of Luna in particular, the discovery of the latter (with thanks to @rafadavies) was of particular delight to me.

Prog/Experimental: I’m not the world’s biggest lover of prog, finding a lot of it twee, and a lot of the experimentation and extended musical breaks for the sake of it, but even then several proggy releases made an impression this year. Of the more straight-forward, Dream Theater’s self-titled was strong and Haken interesting, while TesseracT impressed from the prog-metal field. But the leading lights were Steven Wilson and Ihsahn, both of whom who took progressive and experimental approaches and delivered complex and interesting, challenging yet welcoming albums of high quality prog-influenced experimentation (if you ignore/skip Tacit2 on ‘Das Seelenbrechen’… I do). @whiterhinotea may be able to provide you with details of more from 2013’s prog-attack.

Death Metal: When all is said and done (there’s No Love Lost…), be it more melodic DM, brutal, experimental, discordant, Lovecraftian/“cavern-core” or straight-up, 2013 belonged to Death Metal and was the year that Death Metal emerged from the depths, like a Gargantuan Horror spewing vile, bilious high-quality releases. Classics aside, I’m no great lover of death metal, but in every way, as a genre, Death Metal donned its’ shorts and light blue shirts, came back off strike and fucking delivered. From the old guard we had Suffocation, Immolation, Autopsy, Pestilence and Deicide bringing top quality albums to the table; from the new “Squidy” lot (I hate the term “cavern-core” but that seems to be what’s sticking in the tentacles) Portal, Antediluvian, AEvangelist, Grave Upheaval and Abyssal took Death Metal in interesting, atmospheric and new directions; technical (or post-Death metal, if you like?) got discordant and upped the quality levels with Gorguts and Ulcerate producing masterpieces from the bowels of hades, and of the more melodic, Fleshgod Apocalypse upped the ante of their chaotic, symphonic battery while Amon Amarth and Carcass rode high on horses made of decaying flesh that dine on riffs and songs. As a sub-genre, Death Metal had a spectacular year and set a high benchmark for 2014 to match.

And, lo, thus, it all begins again. Except it doesn’t. It just continues like it always does while we use preset markers to draw a line at certain points, which, considering metal doesn’t have a season or term-time, seems and odd thing to do. But still, it helps us have a point at which to take stock, if nothing else…

Comments, complaints, discussion all welcome, either below or on Twitter

Steve Tovey

Following on from my Not Quite The Albums Of 2013 (Albums of the Year #50-26) post and mini-blog, as 2013 has now drawn to a close, I’m happy to unleash to an unsuspecting (and I suspect uncaring) world the albums that popped my top throughout the year. Whereas in recent years I’ve struggled to get to 20, MMXIII has been the year of the beast (what do you expect from a year with 13 in it…), splurging great rock and metal on us from the underground and below. Hope you like! As with previous, links to youtube tracks if you fancy a taster!

25. STEVEN WILSON ‘The Raven That Refused To Sing’ (KScope) Beautiful, emotive prog-rock, with a great balance between song and musicianship. I imagine those that like prog more than I do will rate this higher, too. Check: Holy Drinker

24. BRING ME THE HORIZON ‘Sempiternal’(RCA) Completing the move from bratty metalcore oiks to maturing, genuine contenders able to craft a good, aggressive song. Impressive effort from the Sheffield crew showcases increasing levels of depth to their output. Check: House of Wolves

23. THE MONOLITH DEATHCULT ‘Tetragrammaton’ (Season of Mist) If ‘Psalm69’ was a death metal album… Great slabs of riffs, extended pounding stompy anthems, cookie monster vocals interspersed with narration from the original Optimus Prime. What’s not to like…!? Check: Qasr Al-Nihaya

22. FIVE FINGER DEATH PUNCH ‘The Wrong Side of Heaven & The Righteous Side of Hell Parts 1 & 2’ (Prospect Park) I wasn’t even certain if the world needed 1, let alone 2, more 5FDP albums, but from track 1 of part 1 onwards their brand of lowest common denominator stomp induces involuntary neck movements and grins. Check: Lift Me Up

21. AVENGED SEVENFOLD ‘Hail To The King’ (Warners) While there is clear ‘Black Album’ worship going on, the biggest album of the year is better than you think it is, with strength in depth and memorable anthems at every turn. Check: Coming Home

20. HELLOWEEN ‘Straight Out Of Hell’ (The End) Good, fun, uptempo happy metal, catchy choruses, melodic solos, no surprises and strong addition to their continuing and highly consistent canon. Check: Straight Out Of Hell

19. TURISAS ‘Turisas2013’ (Century Media) Controversial choice as it’s an album that’s received mixed reviews, but their West-End meets folk metal musicalia is infectious and, to these ears, their most consistent release, even if Chip n’Dale make a guest appearance. ‘We Ride Together’ is their best song to date. Check: No Good Story Ever Starts With Drinking Tea

18. KORN ‘Paradigm Shift’ (Immortal) Well, this little piggy took me by surprise. I checked it out with scepticism that turned to raised eyebrows, that turned to a smile. Classic Korn with some mega-choruses. Check: Love & Meth

17. ALTER BRIDGE ‘Fortress’ (Roadrunner) A bit of slow-burn this one, but given time opens up to reveal itself as another great collection of rock/metal songs. As always Myles Kennedy’s voice and Mark Tremonti’s riffing are exemplary. Check: Cry of Achilles

16. SKELETONWITCH ‘Serpents Unleashed’(Prosthetic) Blackened thrash with hints of Angel Witch and Priest, 3 minute catchy, aggressive songs punctured with quality riffing and feral vocals. Very enjoyable romp indeed. Check: I Am Of Death

15. ALICE IN CHAINS ‘The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here’ (Capitol) Excellent collection of songs, much stronger than its predecessor and, while it’s acknowledged they’re very unlikely to match ‘Dirt’, stands up proud alongside ‘Facelift’ and the self-titled. Check: Hollow

14. KILLSWITCH ENGAGE ‘Disarm The Descent’ (Roadrunner) Completely revitalised by the return of Jesse Leach, who turns in his best vocal performance to date, with the energy of a band just starting out rather than a seasoned veteran. Repeated short-sharp-shock treatment of the best order. Check: The Turning Point

13. HELL ‘Curse And Chapter’ (Nuclear Blast) The years best traditional metal album. Melodramatic, taut riffing with elements of British thrash and power metal and David Bowers distinctive vocals impressing. Check: Age of Nefarious

12. IHSAHN ‘Das Seelenbrechen’ (Candlelight) Progressive, experimental, heavy, intelligent, well-crafted and challenging, Ihsahn’s best release since ‘Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk’ and that truly establishes his solo credentials. Check: NaCL

11. WATAIN ‘The Wild Hunt’ (Century Media) Moving away from the Dissection worship to fully expand into their own sound, mixing breakneck riffing with a slight Nephilim feel in places and delivering in more succinct packages than on previous outputs, continuous refinement of their sound has borne poisoned fruit. Check: They Rode On

 

10. CULT OF LUNA ‘Vertikal’ (Indie Recordings) A true dynamic journey; uplifting, crushing, tense, atmospheric, ugliness, beauty, disharmony, peace, slow-burning, stimulating post-metal. Check: Mute Departure

 

 

 

9. ULCERATE ‘Vermis’ (Relapse) Discordance and aggression meted out with crushing despondency and brutality as Ulcerate meathook their way to the top of the new Death Metal pile. Check: Confronting Entropy

 

 

 

8. LEPROUS ‘Coal’ (Inside Out) Ihsahn’s backing group well and truly establish themselves, impressing with the genre and description defying (is it prog, is it post-metal, is it dark rock?) unique album that once it worms into your brain cannot be dislodged. Check: Chronic

 

 

 

7. TRIVIUM ‘Vengeance Falls’ (Roadrunner) True summary of everything that is, was (and probably will be) Trivium. David Draiman’s coaching of Matt Heafy pulls out his best vocal performance and focusing on what they do best sees Trivium return to form in some style. Check: Incineration

 

 

 

6. GORGUTS ‘Colored Sands’ (Season of Mist) Like Gojira if they’d been brutally and psychologically tortured then pulled through barbed wire, Gorguts bring off-kilter enhancement to an extreme and powerful place. Check: Forgotten Arrows

 

 

 

5. PORTAL ‘Vexovoid’ (Profound Lore) Truly terrifying on first listen, an incessant, relentless superbly dynamically structured album that brings true sub-aqueous pain, horror and discomfort to a new, developing bent of Death Metal. Exceptional. Check: Curtain (if for no other reason that to check out the awesome accompanying video)

 

 

 

4. DEAFHEAVEN ‘Sunbather’ (Deathwish) Perhaps the end of the Black Metal journey as uplifting tremolo crescendos weave in and out of blastbeats and misanthropic screams as a beautifully crafted set of emotions lilt and sway and savage in equal measure. Check: Sunbather

 

 

 

3. GHOST ‘Infestissuman’ (Loma Vista) Surf-rock meets Hammer Horror and takes the Big Red One for a song. And what songs! Simple Satanic lullabyes over a 70’s backdrop with hooks literally to die for. Check: Year Zero

 

 

2. CARCASS ‘Surgical Steel’ (Nuclear Blast) Kicking off with ‘Hellion’ tribute ‘1985’, ‘Surgical Steel’ then delves into the kind of grinding riffs that made Carcass one of the best groups to vomit forth from the UK. As the album progresses, it moves from faster, sinewy material at the outset to breathing, muscular riffage and quality melodic death metal songs, sitting somewhere between ‘Necroticism’ and ‘Heartwork’ this a truly special selection of pure, unadulterated Carcass, with a slew of new riffs, grooves and grinds to assuage even the most sceptical of beasts after an 15+ year wait. Check: The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills

 

1. AMON AMARTH ‘Deceiver of the Gods’ (Nuclear Blast)

Allowing classic metal to integrate their sound like never before, ‘Deceiver…’ brings forth Hooks, melody, crushing riffs, monstrous vocals, Odin, Loke, battles, sieges, war, all served up with headbanging refrain after headbanging refrain. Retaining their trademark Viking Death Metal sound, but loosening the reigns and allowing Di’anno era Maiden (‘As Loke Falls’ has a great midsection that calls to mind ‘Innocent Exile’), classic Priest and Sabbath (the slab-heavy ‘Hel’, to which Candlemass legend Messiah Marcolin lends his distinctive tones) to invade the sound like the savages they oft sing about. But what is most impressive is the sheer number of great songs. It’s been said that Amon Amarth’s brand of metal is limiting, but each track is distinctive, has its own catchy melodies, parts and motifs, all the way from the anthemic, destructive, powerful title-track, the pure metal of ‘As Loke Falls’ and the blood-stirring, fist-pumping ‘Father of the Wolf’ all the way through mid-tempo neck-snappers ‘Under Siege’ and ‘Blood Eagle’ before culminating in the battle-weary metal epic ‘Warriors of the North’. Check: As Loke Falls   Check: Warriors of the North

Comments, complaints, discussion all welcome, either below or on Twitter

Steve Tovey

At the foot of this ramble is the first instalment of my Top 50 albums of the year. “50!?” I hear you cry! Yes, 50. The reason being 2013 has been a “good year” for metal. While there may not be many game-changers, nevertheless it’s been a year that has provided us with a lot of good stuff to get excited about, share and recommend, so why would I pause before passing on recommendations about those nuggets that sit just below the radar?

Because I’ve recently read a few things that have made me consider whether I should be such the metal explorer and have searched out and checked such a mass compendium of metal over the year. It started with this excellent article from Doug Moore on the ‘Invisible Oranges’ site, which referenced several other pieces, including this by David Gerrard  and an ongoing series of articles penned by one of my former Terrorizer colleagues Keith Harris-Khan.  These well written and considered articles move the conversation well beyond “Is Downloading good (or bad, m’kay) for bi’niz”, to looking at whether there is too much out there available to our dirty little lug’oles.

After reading the above articles, I had a Twitter engagement with another former Terrorizer scribe and colleague (we get everywhere) Nick Moberly. I’d said I liked more than 50 albums this year (and would rate 50 or more at four fists or higher) but of those, I’d probably keep 20, of which I’d buy (or have bought) about 10 – the real “keepers”.

His response was: “If you wouldn’t happily buy an album, it shouldn’t be on the list! Critics’ lists are really (now) ‘least-bad’ albums.” “Critics tend to over-justify crap that labels/bands emit. Key test is persistence of listening. Or else no point!”

And he has a point. A bloody good one. A trawl through my itunes shows that since the turn of the millennium, on average I’ve bought/kept 5-10 albums a year (several I’ve bought have subsequently found their way to Music Magpie…) only. Those are the only ones with any real longevity for me. And of this years’ crop, can I say with confidence I’ll still have all of my Top 25? I guess only time will tell.

Things are different considering albums released in the 90’s, with an average of around 20 a year owned and kept, but these were my formative years in metal, so you’d expect that the albums I bought back then, and grew up with; that shaped my musical and metal journey; the experimental route into European underground metal in the mid-90’s via At The Gates and Entombed into Amorphis, Sentenced, Samael, In Flames (when they were good); the albums that framed my Terrorizer tenure; all are reasons behind this. As is quality levels – the 90’s was a great time for underground metal and produced a higher level of great albums per year than post-1998 has, but that’s a different argument for a different time. As a starter for six on this, maybe you should read this from Adrien Begrand.

Not only are there literally thousands of albums available each year, little effort is required to get hold of them and the jist of the article is that rather than trying to listen to as much of it as possible (as I try to do), and in doing so giving many albums a cursory listen only, we should be more selective in our choices and indulge a select few in more depth.

The brilliant ‘Surgical Steel’ by Carcass shows the benefits of this. For me, and many others I know, when it first came out the general response was “Yeah, it’s good. I like it”. As the months have gone by and the number of listens has increased, as the songs have been osmosed, familiarity has grown this has changed to “This is a fucking great heavy metal record. Five fists”.

But because there’s so much new stuff to listen to, sometimes you find yourself listening to something for the sake of listening to it, just so you can tick it off, so you decide (even if in the wrong state of mind) if it’s worth finding the time to give it a more in-depth listen – but that again depends on life and whether other things get in the way. That isn’t how I used to do it.

I genuinely think it takes a minimum of 5 listens to really begin to “get” an album. The first listen is purely about re-setting preconceptions and expectations, the second is when you get a feel of whether you like it or not, the third is when the songs start separating out, and it’s only from then onwards that an album really takes shape, but you take something like AEvangelist ‘Omen Ex Simulacra’, or Grave Upheaval (Untitled), you need to double or even treble that due to the complexity of the music, to pick up the nuances, to immerse in the atmospheres, to breathe in the albums’ depth – a cursory listen via your phone on the park and ride isn’t going to do that, but short of doing this full-time, it’s an impossible task.

But it’s not necessarily a fruitless one…

You see, without FOMO (and internet access) I may have missed out on Portal’s excellent ‘Vexovoid’, Cult of Luna’s ‘Vertikal’ and Ulcerate’s ‘Vermis’ (albums starting with letters other than v are also available), all new bands to me this year, of which these are truly excellent albums and feature in my Top 10 for the year. I wouldn’t have previously checked out Fleshgod Apocalypse on ‘Agony’ and therefore wouldn’t have been interested in the pounding follow-up ‘Labyrinth’, or stumbled across The Monolith Deathcult’s ‘Tetragrammaton’.

Or most of these albums below, many from bands I’d not heard of this time 12 months ago.

So, where do you sit? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, either in the comments below, or on Twitter. Do the benefits of sheep-dipping and increasing the likelihood of uncovering something new you love outweigh the emotional investment you get from focusing on a core selection? But what if that core selection aren’t the ones that work best for you? What if I miss something that I’d love? The albums I’ve invested most in, in terms of time and emotion, are my favourites of this year. Or have I invested most in them because they are my favourites of the year…?

So, I will continue to cast the net. There’s so much good and great stuff out there, and for those who like to look around the nether-regions for unheralded gems (so to speak), I will (and do) present my “Not Quite The Albums of the 2013” list – those that sit outside my Top 25. These are albums I recommend checking out, and that if you can find it in your hearts (and busy lives) to give 5 or 6 + listens too may well find a long shelf life in your collections.

I hope there’s something here to pique your interest:

50. OBLITERATION ‘Black Death Horizon’ (Relapse) Deranged Autopsy-isms from Norway. Check: Goat Skull Crown

49. FEN ‘Dustwalker’ (Code666) Melancholy UK post-black metal with shoegaze overtones. Check: Consequence

48. ABYSSAL ‘Novit Enim Dominus Qui Sunt Eius’ (Profound Lore) Twisted, atmospheric, murky death metal. Check: As Paupers Safeguard Magnates

47. DARKTHRONE ‘The Underground Resistance’ (Peaceville) Enjoyable Bathory worship with studded wristbands homaging trad and crust from true underground legends. Check: Valkyrie

46. PESTILENCE ‘Obsideo’ (Candlelight) Strong tech-thrash-death metal, best of their comeback albums. Check: Superconscious

45. AUTOPSY ‘Headless Ritual’ (Peaceville) You know what you’re getting from this legendary doomy-Death troupe, and they deal it in graveyard peat encrusted spades. Check: Arch-Cadaver

44. ANTEDILUVIAN ‘Logos’ (Nuclear War Now) Raw, subterranean mind-melt of sludgy, warped death metal, similar vein to Portal but even less structured or polished. Check: Through The Cervix of Hawaah

43. SUFFOCATION ‘Pinnacle of Bedlam’ (Nuclear Blast) Ripped faces off with this visceral return to form that showcased the best of brutal death metal. Check: As Grace Descends

42. GRAVE MIASMA ‘Odori Sepulcrorum’ (Sepulchral Voice) Smatterings of old-school Peaceville ipervade this interesting melancholic death metal release. Check: Ascension Eye

41. BLOODY HAMMERS ‘Spiritual Relics’ (Soulsellar) Hammer-Horror meets COC and Type O Negative resulting in a fuzzy, occult tinged happy-doomathon. Check: At The Well Of Nazareth

40. CLUTCH ‘Earth Rocker’ (Weathermaker) For me, overrated by many publications and topping several charts, but then I’m not really a Clutch fan. Still worth a listen with several strong, quirky rock anthems. Check: Crucial Velocity

39. DREAM THEATER ‘Dream Theater’ (Roadrunner) If you’re not a fan, a good introduction to the band. If you are, a strong addition to their catalogue. No surprises, just very well played epic-prog-metal. Check: The Looking Glass

38. AMORPHIS ‘Circle’ (Nuclear Blast) The weakest of the Tomi Joutsen albums, ‘Circle’ is still a strong melodic song-based metal album that puts most of the competition to shame. Check: Narrow Path

37. UNKIND ‘Pelon Juuret’ (Relapse) Crusty. Entombedy. Trap Themy. Violenty. Broody. Check: Olemisen Pelko

36. EARLS OF MARS ‘Earls of Mars’ (Candlelight) Off-the-wall steampunk tales set to vaudevillian doom rock and metal. Check: The Last Glass Eye-Maker

35. VULTURE INDUSTRIES ‘The Tower’ (Seasons of Mist) Like Arcturus’ younger cousins, theatrical Bergen troupe who refuse to sit squarely in the box. Check: The Tower

34. MOTORHEAD ‘Aftershock’ (UDR) A good Motorhead album. Does what it says on the tin. Check: Going To Mexico.

33. VOLBEAT ‘Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies’ (Vertigo) Peaks and troughs, but when these Danish rockers hit, such as with ‘Lady Pearl’ or ‘Lola Montez’, these distinctive rock anthems really deliver. Check: Lola Montez

32. PALMS ‘Palms’ (Ipecac) Chino Moreno provides Isis with great vocals, intent on producing dreamy and swirling atmospheres. Check: Future Warrior

31. KVELERTAK ‘Meir’ (Roadrunner) More expansive than the first, developing longer, more involved songs, while still working in the rock n’roll played by At The Gates ballpark. Check: Braune Brenn

30. BLACK CROWN INITIATE ‘Song of the Crippled Bull EP’ (Bandcamp) Post-metal, metalcore, djent, technical death-metal, seamless transitions and schizophrenic as all hell. Check: Song of the Cripped Bull

29. LIGHT BEARER ‘Silver Tongue’ (Halo of Flies) Dark, angry, brooding, patient post-metal. Check: Amalgam

28. PHILLIP H. ANSELMO & THE ILLEGALS ‘Walk Through Exits Only’ (Housecore) Complex, heavy, spazzy, considered, intelligent groove metal from one of the best metal voices of his generation. Check: Battallion of Zero. 

27. FLESHGOD APOCALYPSE ‘Labyrinth’ (Nuclear Blast) Taking the themes and styles of ‘Agony’ to their (il)logical extremes, in all directions. More brutal. More symphonic. More battery. More ear-assault. Check: Kingborn

26. BEASTMILK ‘Climax’ (Svart) The ‘hippest’ ‘buzziest’ band on the list. Chucking around Joy Division, The Mission, Killing Joke, hints of Nephilim and, apparently, The Editors (according to others; personally I’ve never heard The Editors), and with some decent  songs, too. Check: Death Reflects Us

(25 – 1 to follow in the next couple of days).

Thoughts, comments, tweets, replies all welcome

Steve Tovey

Image 1: http://www.smacdesign.com (via Google Images)

AVENGED SEVENFOLD – Hail To The King (Warners)

 

Juxtaposing the careers and fortunes of Avenged Sevenfold and Metallica showcases a multitude of similarities. Both had early releases (… Seventh Trumpet/Waking The Fallen vs Kill ‘em All) that, while their respective genres (metalcore and thrash) were in their formative years, set the template for others to follow. These were followed by seminal recordings that took each band beyond the movements they’d previously been attached to (City of Evil and Avenged Sevenfold vs Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets) by creating anthems and developing their distinctive sounds and styles, nodding to the scenes that had spawned them while moving (way) beyond them. Both bands then suffered tragedies by losing much-loved and respected band members and responded with dark albums, littered with lengthy complex songs (Nightmare vs …And Justice For All).

And then Metallica released Metallica (aka The Black Album) which, for those who don’t know the story, established its protagonists as the most popular metal band on the planet, bar none, and far outsold any other metal album. By millions. At the same stage of their career, 22 years later, Avenged Sevenfold may have released The Black Album II.

Taking the same approach that Hetfield and Co did on their eponymous album, Hail To The King sees A7X simplifying their songwriting and focus on massive, straight-forward big riffs, powerful choruses, cavernous 4/4 drumming and producing great Rock/Metal songs. Much has been said of the way Hail To The King wears its influences on its sleeves, and much of what has been said is fair, but to write off Hail To The King as a covers album, or to undermine what A7X have done here, is missing the point. This is an incredibly strong album.

In an age where fillers populate mainstream metal albums that are structured like pop releases around a couple of singles, there are no weak moments amongst the 10 songs, with tracks as deep as #8, the ‘Clairvoyant’-esque ‘Coming Home’, a highlight with its melodic headbanging guitar refrains inducing the involuntary Claw as it builds to crescendo. Then track 9, ‘Planets’, wades in, dark and crushing. Hail To The King is littered with anthems at every turn, from the fist-pumping, stadium-filling title-track, the GNR sleaze of Doing Time, the black crunching slabs of the sinister ‘Requiem’,  the riff every new bedroom guitarist will learn first, ‘Shepherd of Fire’ and the saccharine tones of the piano and strings led radio-hit-in-waiting ‘Crimson Day’.

Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance pull off that oh-so-elusive feat of meting out leads and solos that are both memorable and enhance the song, in a way Mustaine and Friedman did in their prime, while M Shadows convinces, dominating the album like Axl Rose or Seb Bach used to, putting in the strongest, most genuine performance of his career.

There are more than clear nods to Metallica (‘This Means War’ is a re-write of ‘Sad But True’), Guns N’Roses (‘Doing Time’), Countdown To Extinction-era Megadeth (‘Heretic’) and Iron Maiden – hey, these are full on headbangs in their directions – but through it all, this is undeniably an A7X album.

Until now, I’ve never been a huge A7X fan, but credit is more than due, it’s been earned. They set out to write a Classic Metal record and they’ve not only succeeded in doing that, they’ve written the Classic Metal album of their generation. Underground and extreme this isn’t. Big, mainstream and filled with metal anthems for a new breed of the wretched and divine this most certainly is. 

FistFistFistFistFist

Steve Tovey

I’ve put off writing about metal since beginning a blog, but you can take the writer out of metal and all that…

So, where better place to start than to write about a festival held on the hallowed grounds of Castle Donington, iconic location of the legendary ‘Monsters of Rock’ festivals and home for the last 11 years of the Download festival, a festival which has seen off the competition of Sonisphere festival like a hoary behemoth holding a 10 foot spatula swatting a fly. Until now, Download was a festival that I’d not attended, but this year boasted a line-up topped by a triple whammy of headliners that I can’t imagine being matched in the future.

First view of the Main Stage on arrival at The Arena

I’m sure there’ll be thousands of blogs and ramblings about Download 2013 which will contain a more comprehensive overview and far wilder tales than this, but my wild festival times are behind me. I was here for the Maiden, the bands and the company. A few beers and a good laugh with friends, too, but if you’re after tales of debauchery you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Once Iron Maiden were announced as headliners performing a “classics” set I was going. There was no question. Maiden were, and still are, my first musical love (well, second if you count Shakin’ Stevens). Fortunately a couple of my oldest friends were up for it too, and so it was on.


Friday 14th June 2013

Getting up at 3.30 was less of a struggle than I’d thought, and by 4am mates were picked up and Ghost was blaring on the stereo. Coffee and metal (‘Infestissumam’, Sabaton ‘Carolus Rex’ and Amorphis ‘Circle’) kept the adrenaline up, and by 7’s we were parked up. No queues, no sleep struggles, no problems.  An even bigger shock was getting the tent palace erected (hurr) by 9.30 despite it’s complicated construction instructions AND the sun was out.

Download 2013 Tent Erection

This last point was to change, and we were quickly introduced to the unavoidable need for wellies (or hiking boots in my case – I do wellies as much as I do Red Hot Chilli Peppers [spit]) but not before we’d begun to settle into the campsite life.

Anyway, onto the bands. Due to fannying around a bit too much for my liking (I’m impatient when it comes to getting in there and seeing bands), and after the 30 minute hike (yep!) to the arena we made it in after the first few bands had been and gone to be hit by the first of Friday’s downpours, so while waiting for Dragonforce we headed over to the tent for shelter where Patent Pending (2 fists) were our first live experience of Download 2013. A bratty pop-punk combo who couldn’t believe their luck that the elements had delivered them a tent full of punters seeking the dry, duly set about making the most of it. Not for me, mind, but they seemed to go down well, but a glimpse of the sun through the clouds and we were off to the second stage and Dragonforce.

The Fury Of The (Rain) Storm was next on the setlist

Kicking things off with ‘Fury Of The Storm’, the power metal champions were on good form, but with a weak-sound, further hampered by any semblance of testicles dropping out anytime they hit a twin-guitar lead (which, let’s face it, is even more often than they use the “So far away” lyric), meant this was more Falkor than Tiamat force. ‘Power Within’ is my favourite album of last year and ‘Cry Thunder’ their best track was wheeled out second, too early in the set for me, forgetting that due to the length of their songs we were now at the midway point. Operation Ground and Pound and the poppy Seasons and all too soon it’s the Guitar Hero classic ‘Fire And The Flames’ eliciting a decent mosh-pit and the end of the set. Not quite a triumph, but an enjoyable half hour (3 fists).

Ah, rain. Quel surprise!

 I can take or leave Down post-NOLA and Phil Anselmo’s live failings are as legendary as his studio legacy, so I wasn’t expecting much, but the New Orleans crew brought their A-game as the sun peeked back out, closing with epic pair of ‘Stone The Crows’ and ‘Bury Me In Smoke’ and our first main stage experience of the weekend was a goodie (4 fists) before we headed back over to the tent for Turisas (5 fists) who, quite bluntly, ruled.

Legion of Doom's career change was going down well with the fans

Viking pomp and bombast with fiddles and bouncing rhythm’s aplenty, any semblance of black metal has long since left their sound, this is the real soundtrack to Helm’s Deep. Having missed Papa Roach and Korn (deliberately), Volbeat (clash with Turisas) and Bullet For My Valentine (very deliberately), the folk theme continued as Gogol Bordello were next on the radar. I’m not overly familiar with them, but their humorous gypsy punk had people jigging and dancing all the way back to the beer tents (4).

It’s hard to give an accurate review of Slipknot as we were miles back, it was chucking it down and the 4am start and the sobering up was kicking in. That said, without doubt this was a headliners set from a band head and shoulders above those they’d shared the bill with on the day. Their playing was spot on, energetic, onstage bodies tore around almost as much as they did out in the field and they belted out a slew of hits to a rapturous audience in what seemed like a headline performance for the ages. ‘Disasterpiece’ opened things up, but didn’t seem to quite work as a set opener, but with ‘Liberate’ and a deafening crowd response to ‘Wait and Bleed’ up next the 18 legged groove machine lurched into it.

Slipknot Download 2013

And by the start of track 5, ‘Before I Forget’, they were well and truly on it. On another day, ‘Eyeless’ could have been charged with assault as the ‘knot proceed to run, jump, bounce, crunch and barrel through every track you could want from them, sensibly and authoritatively handling the barricade breaking twice, before chewing everyone up with a closing trio of stomp-metal mastery ‘Psychosocial’, the anthemic ‘Duality’ and a savage ‘Spit It Out’ complete with Corey Taylor commanding every one of the 90,000 strong to sit (or crouch) in the mud before extolling the maggots to jump the fuck up , which was impressive and looked incredible. Coming back out with a blistering ‘People=Shit’ and ‘Surfacing’ to tie things up, Slipknot showed they weren’t here to make up the numbers or be bullied by the other heavyweight headliners (4 for me, due to the reasons above, for pretty much everyone else). The walk back through the swamp/mud was a nightmare work out for 11.30 at night, but I kept my balance and got back to the tent in one piece.

Saturday 15th June 2013

OK, less waffle, less photos (phone battery was on it’s last legs), more bands from now on (and fortunately no rain). I knew Saturday was going to be a good day… Not only had sleeping in a tent somehow meant I’d not delivered my trademark Manowar-rivaling Black Wind snoring so my camping buddies had been able to get a good kip, I’d also nailed a good 7 hours sleep myself, it was sunny, I’d paid £3 to use the Comfy Crapper and had a leisurely, clean start to the morning and the (d)evil in me had gotten its kicks from seeing some guy slip and fall over face first in the ankle deep piss-mud around the urinals. Saturday was going to be a good day.

And from the moment Mastodon (5) strolled on the stage and began to unfurl those massive riffs, Download 2013 kicked in for me. A switch from the gaseous, tasteless bilge of Tuborg to Hobgoblin had continued Saturday’s good start, and the ‘don took it on from there.

Mastodon DL2013 The Atlanta quartet weren’t messing around, ‘Black Tongue’s’ muscular work out led into a sinewy ‘Dry Bone Valley’ with further highlights ‘Oblivion’, ‘Octopus…’, ‘Curl of the Burl’ and ‘Blood and Thunder’, this was a top band proving their status as one of the big hitters, the intelligence and thought in their music not lost, but enhanced, in the outdoor arena. Karnivool (2) on the other hand passed by with nary a hook or chorus, meandering their way until final track ‘Themata’ finally showed some of their potential.

It could have gone either way for Alice In Chains but understanding the rule of festivals, they broke out the big guns providing a great summers’ afternoon soundtrack, kicking things off with a vibrant ‘Them Bones’. The hits kept coming with ‘Dam That River’, ‘Down In A Hole’, and ‘Again’ through ‘Man In A Box’ to a stunning ‘Rooster’ to finish things off. William Duvall sounding more Staley than Layne Staley, and Cantrell, despite his old man barnet, delivered on the vocals (5 fists).

Joe and Caz Photobombed while having a mid-afternoon snooze

Motorhead (4) didn’t disappoint, either. ‘Stay Clean’, ‘Killed By Death’, a riotous ‘Going To Brazil’, ‘Over The Top’ and ‘Overkill’ in particular, delivered. I’d not been privileged to see a great Motorhead performance before, but cometh the festival hour they more than justified their lofty slot on the main stage. I missed Devin Townsend due to not knowing where the acoustic stage was (and not wanting to give up the good spot we had for Maiden), but having seen this I really wish I’d explored a bit more to find him. QOTSA (4) have never been a favourite of mine, but in the sun, their lazy summer drawl did the trick and induced involuntary head-nodding a-plenty.

Iron Maiden have always been my favourite band and ‘Seventh Son…’ was my first metal album aged 12, but due to misfortune (I didn’t know about Twickenham until it was sold out) and timing I’d never had that blow you away, #fivefists Iron Maiden live experience that is the stuff of legend. I’d seen some very good shows, including Bruce’s return at Earls Court (2000) and a great gig at the O2 on The Final Frontier, but they’d never been as incredible as a favourite band should be. Having learned the lesson at Slipknot the night before, position was taken early by the sound tower/second row of speakers (which meant missing Kvelertak but they were a necessary sacrifice) I had a good view (and a great sound to come) in the bag even before they kicked things off with a Spitfire flyby.

The already infamous Spitfire flying by

As the iconic war machine buzzed over Donington, the first strum pealed out of the speakers followed by “Seven deadly sins…”.  The synth intro and power chords built, the suspense rose… PYRO “I am he, the bornless one” belted across the field and ‘Moonchild’ was powerfully underway, racing itself through staccato riffs, terse solos and dramatic verses. That legendary, blow you away #fivefists live Iron Maiden experience was occurring.

Spitfire flyby and opening strains of Moonchild

Bruce was as powerful and clear as I’d ever heard him, and to see Adrian Smith peel off the notes to one of my all time favourite solos to ‘The Prisoner’ was 25 years in the waiting, and he didn’t disappoint. Indeed, Smith and Dickinson, were vying for stars of the show, one epic and perfect lead being met by arguably the greatest of heavy metal vocalists, in the toppest of form.

My all-time favourite guitarist Adrian Smith

Ah, you can nitpick the setlist (changed from the original ‘Maiden England’), and I’d have loved a bit of ‘Killers’, or ‘Still Life’ but when a flawless, driving version of ‘Phantom Of The Opera’ or the anthem and live classic of ‘Fear Of The Dark’ take their place, such complaints are irrelevant as the set list went… Classic. Classic. Classic. Classic (repeat til end). Any time all-time greats (as in metal all-time greats, not just Maiden) The Trooper and Number of the Beast are casually tossed in, though not casually played, mid-set you know you’re on to a winner. That said, the omission of ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name’ is noteworthy and led to quite a few people – myself included – unsure if the set proper had ended or not as it was definitely expected.

The Trooper

‘Wasted Years’ and ‘The Clairvoyant’ stood out for me, unsung heroes this time around sung, and with gusto, by the 90,000+ witnessing something special. But the overall highlight of highlights was a sensational version of all 10 minutes of ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’, with the instrumental second half spellbinding and awe-inducing, the musicianship combining with the stage show and the atmosphere in Donington Park to, excuse the cliche overload in this paragraph, quite simply create something magical, something beyond just 6 guys playing music.

Iron Maiden 2 Mins Dl2013

And yet, still it wasn’t done as the crackled recording I’d heard so many times in my life stated “We shall go on to the end…” as Maiden launched into as energetic and vital a performance of Aces High as they did 28 years ago on ‘Live After Death’ before a personal favourite ‘Evil That Men Do’ (complete with Bruce still getting the pre-chorus lyrics mixed up as he did on the original Maiden England and ANOTHER classic Smith solo) led into traditional closer ‘Running Free’, bringing things to a close.

I hope they release this on DVD because it was so energetic, epic, powerful and great, so absolutely nailed, that I couldn’t stand back and sniff it all in and I’d love to relive this. With 20 years of gig going experience, and this being my 7th time seeing Maiden, I’d finally gotten that legendary live performance, and after all this time, quite possibly the greatest live performance I’ve witnessed. And I didn’t even mention the stage sets… (7 deadly fists).

Iron Maiden DL2013

Sunday 16th June 2013

Coming back to the arena still on a high, I made sure I was in early this time. I’d gotten what I wanted and more out of last nights spectacular performance, so, with the sun out, Sunday was a bonus day, but one eagerly anticipated with Amon Amarth, Ghost and Rammstein on the cards. Cancer Bats were a band I’d heard bits of, didn’t know much about, and was intrigued. These guys certainly brought it, and, to coin a phrase, it well and truly “went off” to their riff heavy sludgy brand of hardcore and they left with at least one more convert in me (4, but probably for the thousands losing their shit to it in the circle pits). Props to the guy who did a standing backflip in the middle of one of the pits, too.

Time had dulled the pain of just how poor Coal Chamber (1) were and I’d even talked myself round into thinking they might be a good laugh but when the guitarist is struggling to play the simplest of jerky riffs and your material is pony to begin with, I was pretty much mistaken and we left a couple of songs in to take a wander, but unfortunately not much clashed with them so we couldn’t really escape. At least the ale tent was far enough away from the main stage to reduce them to a murmur in the distance. Five Finger Death Punch (4) are a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine and they kicked (it) off with a driving version of standout track ‘Under And Over It’. Decked in a Popeye t-shirt, Ivan Moody looked a genuine thug as he growled and crooned his way through a strong set and the pounding riffs got their reward in a strong crowd reaction.

After catching the second half of Masters of Reality (3) and meeting some cool fellow/follow Tweeters @RafaDavies and his merry crew (including @m1kecollins @whiterhinotea @fuckedupfaerie @ciderwithsuzie amongst others) we were in great position for Amon Amarth (5 despite the abridged set length)Launching into a storming ‘War Of The Gods’ this was the second Scandinavian Viking outfit to bring their A-game to these shores this weekend, though Amon Amarth also brought their long boat.

Amon Amarth DL2013

Faultless aggressive playing and the thunderous roar of Johann melee’d into ‘Pursuit of Vikings’ as willing victims dashed themselves against each other in supplication to the distinctive, classic and grooving melodic death metal spat from the stage. Newie ‘Deceiver of the Gods’ promises much for the new album easily standing shoulder to shoulder with it’s well-known and loved brethren, before ‘Twilight Of The Thunder Gods’ battled us home. Technical issues had robbed us of more, but Amon Amarth certainly pillaged their way to a festival success.

The less said about Rival Sons hookless Doors/Zeppelin wannabe noodling and retro schtick the better (1) – particularly as I voluntarily missed out on Stone Sour to keep our good spot for Ghost (4). Anticipation was high, and a slick performance from the Restless Ghouls was much welcomed. Focusing on their sterling debut more so than current-album-of-the-year ‘Infestissumam’, none-the-less, Ghost played a good ‘un, son, with Papa Emeritus II’s idiosyncracies and affected stage patter providing dry, welcome and apt humour to the occasion. ‘Year Zero’ and ‘Ritual’ stole the undead crown, but it was ‘Monstrous Clock’ that was the highlight, bringing an enjoyable set to a close.

Ghost DL2013

Things got really busy for Airbourne (4) – I guess a LOT of people didn’t want to see Gaslight Anthem. That, and the Aussie troupe are pretty popular in their own right. Unfortunately, a badly timed beer run meant we’d lost our space and were caught in the swirling masses right at the back as Airbourne set about an enjoyable set of their sped up AC/DCisms. I had fairly high hopes for A Day To Remember as I do like a fair few songs of theirs, but with a sloppy performance they comfortably won the biggest disappointment award (1 with the 1 earned for the funny banter and the crowd surfers standing on the body of someone crowd surfing competition) particularly after murdering their 2 best tracks, ‘I’m Made Of Wax, Larry…’ and ‘All I Want’.

Still, it gave us an excuse to leave the second stage early to get in place for Rammstein (5).

Now, I have a couple of Rammstein albums, and certainly don’t hate them, but don’t really give them much time, though having heard good things I was looking forward to seeing them. Um, “good things” doesn’t begin to cover it. Live, at Download 2013, things were very, very good, and then some, and I found myself surprised at just how a band I had little connection with gave Iron Maiden a genuine run for their money.

They brought to Hetfield a combination of massive riffs, tunes that work really well live, a great atmosphere and a ridiculous stage show that I couldn’t even begin to do justice to that included so many pyros, explosions, facemasks that spat walls of fire, giant penis-cannons spurting foam over a quarter of the audience, physical and (I think, hope, mimed) sexual abuse of the keyboard player (who plays the set running on a treadmill, when he’s not running away from the singer). All that, along with him being burned alive in a 6 foot metal cooking pot to more pyros, fireworks, explosions, to more massive, massive riffs, to a version of ‘Du Hast’ that had pretty much every single person in the Arena dancing, moshing, doing something, to an astonishing vulnerable, epic, sensitive piano/vocal working of ‘Mein Herz Brent’ (normally possessing of massive, massive riffs itself) to a dramatic and pounding ‘Sonne’. Ok, they finished with their weakest song, ‘Pussy’, but at least played it with humour and more stage props.

But don’t be fooled, Rammstein live wasn’t just about the stage show. It was about being the perfect ending to a great weekend. It was about a top flight band putting on a show that exceeded expectations, that was visually, musically, technically, dynamically perfect on their debut Donington performance. It was about 5 50 year old Germans bringing their unique style of metal to these shores allegedly for one last time, and leaving absolutely everything on the stage. They damn near stole the show. And they would have, if Maiden hadn’t just delivered the performance of my life time.

We went to Download as one last metal weekend out for a bunch of guys now married, with kids, and looking to call time on our festival endeavours. And we left talking about going next year, almost regardless of the line up.

Thank you Download 2013. Despite the overpriced horrid beer (with no alternative to Tuborg), excessive hikes, rain-sodden first day, swampy campsite, annoying band clashes and full on quads work out to get up the churned up muddy paths, I bloody loved it!

Rammstein Image 1 from http://www.downloadfestival.co.uk

Rammstein Image 2 from http://www.nme.com