Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017: A Year to Survive

One of the more terrible years of my life is coming to a close. But before I get to say goodbye to 2017, I had to suffer through another fucking holiday season of appropriated pagan traditions, crass materialism and yuppie entitlement. Do you know anyone who hates Christmas? I mean, genuinely despises it? Well you do now.

Among the more useless traditions of the season is the year end list. As people gather around their screens to feel smug about how hip or "kvlt" their music choices are (delivered to them by the ür kvlt platforms of Spotify and Apple), I thought I'd try something a little different. Instead of "the ten best albums of 2017", I revisited releases by the bands who I've been listening to for a decade or more; the bands whose music shaped what I listen to - and in the case of one band, who I am.

That band would be Sepultura, whose first six albums were the soundtrack to my teenage years, and led me down the (left hand) path to death metal, hardcore, experimental music, and beyond. If I came away with one conclusion from the diverting (though not entirely different) paths of Max Cavalera and Sepultura since their acrimonious split over 2 decades ago, it's this: Max was the populist responsible for the band's most anthemic (at times divisive) material. Andreas Kisser, the band's lead guitarist (and now de facto leader), increasingly seems to have been the craftsman and intellect that made Beneath the Remains and Arise the timeless classics that they are. In the ensuing decades, Cavalera made albums that ran parallel to metal's more obnoxious trends, from nu metal to a renewed interest in the thrash and death metal he helped pioneer; in doing so, he has managed to stay relevant as a solo(ish) artist. His erstwhile bandmates, seemingly written off from the outset, released albums that were interesting though not particularly memorable.

Though it pales to the albums they made with Max, Machine Messiah is surprisingly good, and finds Sepultura taking chances in ways that they haven't done since their Nineties heyday. Though the music rarely strays from the percussive hardcore/metal hybrid of the band's commercial peak, Chaos A.D./Roots, (though there are occasional moments that recall the band's creative peak, Beneath the Remains) Kisser's interest in film soundtracks has bled into the band's music in interesting ways, making it more expansive and - dare I say - cinematic.

[Instrumentals became a regular part of Sepultura's albums almost immediately after Kisser joined; in retrospect, his interest in orchestration was foreshadowed all the way back in 1987 on Schizophrenia, which contained both his first recorded contributions to Sepultura and no less than 3 instrumental tracks.]

For most heshers, discussions about Sepultura's greatness employ the past tense - the band's relevance to the metal world seemingly ended with their Roadrunner contract. As my own relationship with this band grows to a quarter century, I'm happy that the guys whose music helped me through some of the darkest years of my life are still out there, taking chances and settling scores.

If Sepultura were a band whose influence on my life I'll never truly escape, then Kreator was the same thing to them. Kreator's early albums were an obvious influence on all the early death metal bands, and were a central part of my own dorky thrash revival phase circa 99-00. Since the outcry from fans over their Nineties goth metal period, Kreator have employed their melodic influences judiciously; but Gods of Violence is their most transparent attempt to write catchy songs since then. Though rooted in the same NWOBHM-frosted thrash as their last few albums, the songs frequently attempt festival-ready choruses. The results aren't great - Mille's rasp just doesn't lend itself to that kind of singing. After a decade of sticking doggedly to a tried and true formula, Kreator is showing pangs of wanderlust again. I won't be surprised if the next album sees them revisiting their Joy Division and Bauhaus records. I'm keeping the nail polish ready just in case.

Even though Justin Broadrick has been more prolific than ever with Jesu, becoming (bizarrely - at least to me) an influential shoegaze icon in the process, Godflesh has barely faded from memory. Though the preceding releases were trumpeted (erroneously) as a return to the sublime doom metal of Selfless, Post Self returns the band to the cold mechanical style of Nihil and Messiah. That may be disappointing to fans who want Streetcleaner, Redux, but come on - Godflesh has come too far for that. In a way, the album encapsulates Broadrick's entire oeuvre, employing the eerie atmospherics of Final and the somatic fuzz of Jesu. It also makes clear what separates Godflesh from Jesu; though Godflesh has often employed drone and atmospherics, at its core the band's sound is suffocating and overwhelming - the perfect soundtrack to an awful year. But can any year with a new Godflesh album can't be all bad.

As a snobby teenager, I dismissed Cannibal Corpse as a band for people who lacked the intellectual curiosity to find more obscure (i.e. better) death metal. I came around to the band a decade after first hearing them when - in my mid-twenties, at a time when the metal landscape had completely changed  (and most of my fellow metalheads had moved on to other things) - Cannibal Corpse were still around, and somehow getting better. There never seems to be any excitement upon Cannibal Corpse's return - understandable, since they never seem to go away. Unlike the majority of their peers, no come back albums or reunion tours are necessary for these veterans. The occasional line up hiccups aside, this band has taken on the inexorable march of time with ruthless efficiency and single-mindedness, and emerged essentially unchanged.

It would be futile to try and rank Red Before Black in the continuum of Cannibal Corpse records, considering their overall quality and consistency. Just the fact that they can keep putting out albums that are THIS heavy and THIS good at THIS stage of their career is remarkable, and a feat in and of itself. With appearances on comedies like Ace Ventura and Squidbillies, Cannibal Corpse appear to have become pop culture's favourite death metal band, encapsulating all the genre's OTT ridiculousness to reap the easy laughs of non-heshers. But they've never succumbed to outside pressures to soften their sound, and have been firing on all cylinders since the beginning. In truth, between their consistency and flawless technical brutality, we couldn't have picked better ambassadors to the mainstream.

Likewise, Immolation should be celebrated for their quality and consistency. As I raved back in March, Atonement is quite an achievement: an album by one of death metal's OGs that is as good (if not better) than the band's classic albums. Not that this is a rehash of old glories for Immolation. As bands like Ulcerate draw acclaim with a more atmospheric take on Immolation's atonal style, Immolation themselves are showing themselves adept at atmospheric death metal when they take a stab at it (albeit in measured doses). Between their use of dissonant interludes, their effortless blasting, and their singular lurching riffs, few death metal band utilize dynamics quite as well as Immolation. If you haven't already, and you consider yourself a death metal fan - for fuck's sake, go get Atonement now.

On the surface, any Origin album that I'm not foaming at the mouth over would appear to be a disappointment. Unparalleled universe follows up three albums of fearless reinvention from Topeka's greatest with an album most notable for its reluctance to stray past the band's established parameters. In that sense, it's most reminiscent of Echoes of Decimation, albeit tighter and (impossibly) faster. My initial reaction to this back to basics approach was disappointment - surely death metal space travellers should keep their eyes on the future, not the past? More worrying, too often the band seems content to recycle sections from 2008's Antithesis (which remains their signature achievement, in addition to being a high water mark for modern death metal). But few bands can match Origin in terms of pure speed and flawless execution. And in a genre where creativity is rarely rewarded and stylistic departures are punished, Unparalleled Universe isn't easily dismissed. Even in standby mode, Origin make most death metal bands seem like rank amateurs.

It's hard to know what to make of Morbid Angel these days. Undoubtedly one of the most important and influential death metal bands of all time (their impact on the genre is second only to Death, and even that is debatable), their legacy has been marred by sub-par albums and outlandish personalities. Kingdoms Disdained has been touted as a return to form, and an attempt to redress the mockery-inspiring stylistic departures of Illud Divinum Insanus. In that respect, the album delivers on expectations, returning band and fans alike to the safe confines of early Morbid Angel, with nary a techno beat to be heard. It's also kind of boring. The problem isn't entirely with the songs themselves - the production, which flattens out the band's sound, doesn't do the material any favours. One can only wonder what would have happened if Kingdom had the range and clarity that Erik Rutan (who co-produced this with the band) brought to the latest Cannibal Corpse album. "The fourth least worse MA album" isn't much of an endorsement, but in a year without releases from Behemoth, Krisiun, or Hate Eternal, a paint by numbers MA  album has no real competition to expose its flaws. Anyone who hasn't yet gotten their fill of this band and their everflowing stream of copycats will probably dig it.

Azarath just sneak in under the wire for this round up's "decade or more " guidelines, since I discovered them at the tail end of 2007. Back then they were a rough and tumble mix of hyperblasting speed of Krisiun and sudden lurching riffs. They've refined their sound since then - their newest album In Extremis keeps all the aggression and sudden time shifts of their earliest recordings, but issues them with a machine-like precision and efficiency. When death metal's biggest names fumble, bands like Azarath will always be around to pick up the ball.

Newly signed to Relapse Records, The Obsessed have issued their first album in over twenty years. This isn't a true Obsessed reunion, since it doesn't involve members of the band's previous incarnations. But "members of Spirit Caravan play the Obsessed's greatest hits" doesn't look good on tour flyers, so here we are. My ingrown cynicism aside, Sacred is still a wonder, infusing Wino's sublime guitar tone and hesher shaman rasp into a group of songs that stand among the best he's ever written. 

In a turn of events that can't be mere coincidence, Relapse released Sacred the same year they re-issued The Obsessed's self-titled debut, now nearly 30 years old. Since it was an album from a different era the first time around, it was never in danger of aging badly. It established Wino as both a man ahead of his time and behind the times and further, cements his status as the Lemmy of doom metal. You can never take too many trips on the Tombstone Highway.

Strange as it sounds, I spend so much time reviewing Bandcamp albums that I rarely get to listen anything for pleasure. Thus, I hardly had a chance to spend any time with the new Anathema album - and in fact, completely forgot there was a new Anathema album til just a few weeks ago. With Alternative 4, the band reinvented themselves as a kind of Nineties Pink Floyd, and then reinvented themselves again in 2010 for a world that had embraced Radiohead and Sigur Rós. Unlike Paradise Lost or My Dying Bride, Anathema never walked back their Nineties digressions. Instead, they've embraced their status as a pop band, albeit one with deep roots in prog rock and doom metal - a Coldplay for the thinking person. If 2014's Distant Satellites was a misstep (not so much bad as unmemorable), then The Optimist takes Anathema back to what Weather Patterns and We're Here Because We're Here did so well - namely, putting keyboards in the foreground, using distorted guitars sparingly and employing Lee Douglas' crystalline vocals to devastating effect. [It's safe to say that Anathema's bold reinvention wouldn't have been half as successful without her.] As the band assimilates downtempo and jazz into their ever expanding sound, it's hard to remember a time when they were essentially an upstart Celtic Frost - though they remain true to the spirit of Into the Pandemonium, if not its execution.

As 2017 is unhooked from its respirator, I contemplate the future and wonder if the bands that got me through all the worst periods in my life, from high school until now, will still be with me. Even if there comes a day that there's never a new album from Godflesh or Sepultura to look forward to, I'll have the bodies of work they've accumulated by my side. Meet the inexorable march of time and emerge unchanged.