Book Review: “Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal”

meandeviation

If you think you’re pretty knowledgeable about progressive metal, as I did, you’re in for a rude awakening with Jeff Wagner’s “Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal.”

Wagner, a former editor of Metal Maniacs magazine, is an apparent aficionado of progressive rock and metal — which makes him a particularly good guide into the world(s) of metal’s most adventurous auteurs. By the time I was finished, I had compiled a long list of “must have” bands I’d never heard of before meeting them through “Mean Deviation” (and then YouTube).

Wagner knows his metal and I have a suspicion the man could write fluently about music theory. But Wagner has a conversational writing style that never becomes dry or gets bogged down in discussions of time signatures or sixteenth notes. He’s also not a sycophant; Wagner can appreciate classic Celtic Frost — while still admitting “Cold Lake” was a shocking, embarrassing disaster.

As Wagner describes it, the stirrings of progressive metal can be found in albums like King Crimson’s “In The Court of the Crimson King” and with 70-era Pink Floyd, Yes, Kansas, Genesis (pre-Phil Collins, of course) and mid-career Black Sabbath.

Sabbath? Progressive? I doubted as well — but Wagner makes a strong argument that Sabbath ventured into uncharged musical territory on classic albums like “Sabotage,” “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” “Technical Ecstasy” and even the maligned “Never Say Die.” Today, Sabbath is considered sacred, untouchable and calcified metal gospel, due to the overplaying of “Paranoid,” “War Pigs” and “Iron Man” by lazy rock radio — but Sabbath reached for something new on albums like “Sabotage” and “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.” Really, go find the track “Am I Going Insane?” and you’ll agree Sabbath were a lot more progressive than people might suspect.

Any history of progressive metal must visit with Rush, and Wagner pays the band their due — even if he acknowledges the band left most of its creative masterworks behind after recording “Moving Pictures” in the early 1980s. But even while we can fault Rush for, essentially, sticking with a winning formula in its post “Pictures” work, the band’s influence can’t be dismissed. My tolerance for Rush is somewhat limited, but certainly the band heavily influenced some of the bigger names in progressive metal, particularly Dream Theater.

Along the way, Wagner examine bands like Fates Warning (also one of Dream Theater’s biggest influences), Queensryche, Voivod and the Dream Theater boys themselves. It was nice to see Fates Warning get some deserved recognition — they were never commercially as successful as Queensryche or Dream Theater, but they’re the band people like Mike Portnoy name check when discussing their inspiration.

Wagner makes some interesting stops along the way and finds the progressive gene in the death metal swamps of Florida, the arctic cold of black metal and in the hearts of Swizerland, Germany, Finland and Japan. You’ll want to take notes, because many of the bands Wagner highlights — like Coroner, Mekong Delta, Anacrusis, Nocturnus, Atheist, Sigh and Amorphis, to name a few — are worth your time. Death gets particular mention, and rightly so — go back and listen to “Human,” “Symbolic” and “Individual Thought Patterns” and you’ll be amazed at the innovation.

History aside, “Mean Deviation” particularly shines when Wagner digresses into an min-essay on the difference between progressive metal and “Progressive Metal.” The progressives with a small-p, Wagner says, were (and are) the bands willing to throw out their own rule books in order to push themselves musically. Large-P “Progressive Metal” is largely a formula founded on Dream Theater that, at its core, isn’t terribly progressive, Wagner argues.

For example, compare Voivod to Symphony X. Going into the 1990s, Voivod had a cult of followers after bludgeoning metal albums like “War and Pain,” “Killing Technology” and “Dimension Hatross”  — but Voivod lost many of those fans when the band followed its muse (and Floydian influences) on somewhat controversial albums like “Nothingface” and “Angel Rat.” Taking musical strides while risking alienating fans makes Voivod small-p progressive, Wagner says.

Symphony X, however is large-P “Progressive Metal” in that they took Dream Theater’s style, did it as well or better than Dream Theater, but never deviated much from that style. Now, don’t get upset — Symphony X is a stellar band, with excellent musicianship and vocals, complex musical arrangements and fascinating songs. But really, there are few surprises with Symphony X. They’re great at what they do … but they’re never going to shock us with a unexpected left hook. Symphony X is never going to produce its own “Angel Rat.”

The final third of the book is a series of mini-biographies on a host of bands Wagner found significant in the progressive genre. Frankly, I found myself skipping some bands — look, I can appreciate what Therion is doing, but I don’t find it overly interesting. But many of the bios were intriguing enough to keep me adding names of my list of bands.

With the exception of Opeth, Wagner doesn’t spend much time on the current crop of progressive bands, which makes sense. Who knows what those bands will sound like tomorrow?  But what I found myself doing after reading “Mean Deviation” was listening to current progressive metal bands with new ears — now, it’s hard for me to listen to Mastodon or Opeth without hearing bits and pieces of Voivod, or classic progressive bands like Kansas.

If you’re a fan of progressive metal — or if you always wondered what the fuss of progressive bands was all about — you’ll find something of interest in “Mean Deviation.” You’ll also find about 30 to 50 albums you’ll discover you have to own. Prepare your wallet to take a bit of a beating.

You can read an interview with Wagner about progressive metal here.

Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman dead of liver failure

hanneman

Blabbermouth.net is reporting Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman died at about 11 a.m. Thursday at his home in California. Hannemann was 49 years old.

According the Blabbermouth post, which you can read here, Hanneman died of liver failure.

Hanneman had been away from Slayer for a while, while he attempted to recover from a spider bite that had caused serious damage to his arm. According to Blabbermouth, Hanneman was in the hospital for two months undergoing treatment and surgery on his arm.

I won’t claim to be the world’s biggest Slayer fan, but I have a copy of “Reign in Blood” (an album I first purchased when it was first released) and have seen the band in concert. I have the “Still Reigning” DVD at home as well, which rules. A Slayer concert was like no other live show in the world; the energy at those shows was contagious. No other band — Black Sabbath, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Exodus, or anyone else — could match Slayer on stage.

To say the least, this is a big loss to metal. Hannemann (along with band mates Tom Araya, Kerry King and Dave Lombardo), helped create the thrash sound; in some ways, “Reign in Blood” is the ultimate thrash album, in that it took all the intricate riffs of Metallica and the technicality of Megadeth and compressed it into 30 minutes of overwhelming sonic assault. While “South of Heaven” and “Seasons in the Abyss” were also great albums — and while the band had moments of greatness on later albums like “Divine Intervention” and “God Hates Us All,” “Reign In Blood” is the album for which the band will truly be remembered.

Hanneman’s guitar style was unique; too be honest, it was just plain weird. Hanneman and King tortured the most bizarre sounds out of their guitars. Both men had heavy punk influences, and that came out in their frenetic solos.

I guess we’ll find out more later what the future holds for Slayer (although King previously said in an interview posted on Blabbermouth that he would be happy if the band went on with Exodus guitarist Gary Holt, who has been filling in for Hanneman). I imagine there will be a new Slayer album; and while Holt is an amazing guitarist and twisted song-writer, Hanneman’s absence will be felt. We have yet to learn if Hanneman — one of the key members of Slayer — can really be replaced.

Anyway, time will tell. Raise a toast to Jeff Hanneman, if you will. His place in the history and legend of thrash metal is secure. Rest in peace.

Review: Ahab, “The Giant”

ahab

Doom metal isn’t the most innovative genre. I admit I have not immersed myself in the genre as I have in other styles of metal, but I’ve heard enough funeral dirge metal to know I’d mostly rather get doom from the original masters — Black Sabbath.

The one exception to my “no new doom” rule, however, is Germany’s Ahab. Ever since the band’s first release — the suffocating yet oddly beautiful “The Call of the Wretched Sea” — I have been a fan and have always eagerly await news of new Ahab albums.

The band’s 2012 release, “The Giant,” is not a disappointment. In fact, “The Giant” is a great leap forward for Ahab, as the band moves away from their already-hybridized version of “doom” and more into progressive metal. Not every fan will like the band’s musical direction — but if fans look back on the band’s previous two albums, “The Call of the Wretched Sea” and “The Divinity of Oceans,” it should be clear that “The Giant” was Ahab’s next logical step.

Like album’s past, “The Giant” is a concept album, this time based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” But you don’t need to know your Poe to enjoy “The Giant.”

Vocalist/guitarist Daniel Droste still employs his dead-man’s sludge-filled grunt throughout the album — but Droste sings much of the album with “clean vocals.” Now, singing clean isn’t new to the band; there were moments of clean vocals in “The Divinity of Oceans,” and what I’d guess you call “clean chanting” on songs like “The Sermon” and “The Hunt” from “Call of the Wretched Sea.” But Droste does something new here, singing almost entire songs (“Fathoms Deep,” “The Giant” and “Time’s Like Molten Lead”) entirely with clean voice.

Droste’s “regular” voice isn’t Bruce Dickinson’s, to be sure — but the vocals fit the melancholy feel of the disc. How much the “clean” vocals bother you will like depend on how much of death metal purist you are — certainly, some older bands of the band have not loved the new style. On the other hand, the juxtaposition of clean and doom vocals gives the band a much broader musical range and depth.

Speaking of “depth,” Ahab has always been about the impossibly heavy depths of the sea (all three concept albums are based on sea epics or history of shipwrecks). While the vocals are often clearer, there has been so softening musically; the beautiful parts are steeped in sadness, or are eerie and full of foreboding — while the metal still crashes down and obliterates. A prime example is “Fathoms Deep,” a deceptively lulling song for the first few minutes, until the doom crashes in like a tidal wave and overwhelms everything in its path.

There are a lot of standout tracks here — almost everything works, really, although “Antarctica the Polymorphess” is not quite as interesting as everything that comes before and after. While all the rest are great, my personal faves are “Further South,” Fathoms Deep,” “The Giant” and the brilliant “Time’s Like Molten Lead” — which, I’ve read, is actually a bonus track.

Ahab continues to grow on “The Giant” and is moving in directions I can’t quite predict. While I love the band’s doom metal approach, it’s good to see the band member’s setting sail for different musical shores. I’ll be looking forward to their next musical voyage. Who knows where they’ll go?

Skid Row preparing to release new EP (wait — Skid Row still exists?)

If you see this little postie in the next 24 hours, you can hear the new Skid Row EP, “United World Rebellion: Chapter 1″ at Loudwire. You can find the EP here, but it’s only gonna be on line for 24 hours. So run. Or, get a time machine if you’re a little late.

In case you missed it, “United World Rebellion” sounds, well, like it was recorded in 1989.

The singer, Johnny Solinger, sounds pretty much exactly like Sebastian Bach on “Kings of Demolition” and “Let’s Go.” That’s not exactly a criticism — there are certainly worse singers to be compared to than Bach — but if you didn’t like the Bach incarnation of the band, you won’t like them much now.

Solinger sounds a little bit more like his own man on “This is Killing Me” … but jeeze, the song might as well be called “I Remember You Again.” Or, perhaps, “I Remember You Too (Two).” You get my meaning? The songwriting team of Rachel Bolan and Snake Sabo have not changed much with the decades.

If you like quasi-dirty-sounding 80s hair metal — or if you graduated from high school in 1990 and have fond memories of shaking your fist to “Youth Gone Wild” before football games — you’ll be happy with “United World Rebellion.” As for me, well, I didn’t love the 80s that much the first time.

But don’t take my word for it. Stream the thing yourself. Also, you can purchase the EP from iTunes, Amazon or Wal-Mart.

(P.S.:  Does anyone else think it’s ironic that Wal-Mart is selling an album called “United World Rebellion”? Imagine the ad campaign: “Angsty  ‘Occupy Wal-Street’ metal, sponsored by Corporate Giant Wal-Mart!” Anyway, funny …)

A Tale of two Queensryches, part two

As you know, Geoff Tate, who fronted Seattle’s Queensryche since, well, forever, was booted from the band by former buddies Eddie Jackson, Scott Rockenfield and Michael Wilton. Myriad accusations were thrown back and forth, alleging physical abuse, financial malfeasance, nepotism and the inevitable irreconcilable musical differences.

Jackson, Wilton, Rockenfield and guitarist Parker Lundgren hooked up with Todd La Torre — first as “Rising West” and later as “Queensryche.” The band is releasing an album of new material in June.

Meanwhile, Tate connected with a new group of musicians, including former Queensryche guitarist Kelly Gray and former Quiet Riot bassist Rudy Sarzo to form a new band, which is also called “Queensryche.” Tate’s Queensryche album, “Frequency Unknown” comes out later this month.

Both bands have released a bit of new music — and both bands are touring heavily on old QR material. Tate’s band is currently doing “Operation: Mindcrime” in its entirety, while the La Torre version of QR has been doing shows based entirely on songs from the band’s original EP and the first four albums.

Both sides — and their various fans — have been bashing each other mercilessly through the metal media for months now. Both sides claim they are the “real” QR and dismiss the other as has-beens (Tate) or cheap imitations (La Torre).

Who’s right? No one.

It seems obvious Tate and Wilton/Jackson/Rockenfield can’t work together anymore. Really, that’s just as well. Tate hasn’t really been interested in the old QR material for a while — it was Tate that pushed the band away from metal toward the mellower, more melodic music found on “American Soldier” or the second half of “Operation: Mindcrime II.” It was also Tate who moved the band to record “Dedicated to Chaos,” an album Wilton and the others later claim to have hated.

I didn’t love “American Soldier.” I thought the album was much too respectful, too tame. What little I heard of “Dedicated to Chaos” was enough to convince me not to buy the album. I thought “Operation: Mindcrime II” was half of a good album.

But even if I didn’t like Tate’s direction, I can’t accuse the man of not taking chances. Nothing in the world would have been easier for the members of Queensryche than to keep bashing out “Empire” clones for the rest of their careers; I can’t say I liked the way Tate was going musically, but at least he was pushing himself.

The La Torre version of QR — at least judging from “Redemption,” the band’s first single from the new album — isn’t treading new ground. Frankly, “Redemption” could have come right off “Empire” — it’s slightly heavier, perhaps, but the song doesn’t stray far from the template the band laid out in 1990.  It’s a listenable song with an excellent central riff, and the song shows the Le Torre version of the band has promise … but it doesn’t pack any surprises.

As for “Cold,” the first single from Tate’s “Frequency Unknown,” well, it’s frankly better than I expected. La Torre partisans love to claim that Tate’s voice is shot. But while it’s possible the man can’t scream like he could in 1981, Tate has hardly lost the ability to sing. Tate sounds better on “Cold” than he sounded on “O:MII” or “American Soldier” — and if the song’s main riff is a little generic, the guitar solo is certainly frenzied and full of power. Tate sounds like he has a fire that was missing on the last few QR albums.

Tate and Wilton’s “divorce” seems like the best thing that could have happened to both sides. If the end result is two good albums and two groups of re-energized musicians, then everybody wins.

But there’s one thing both sides need to do — retire the name “Queensryche.”

Tate doesn’t need it; he wanted to make a break from the past, so he should  cut the old name loose. He’s recognizable enough that people would still come to see him if he went on simply as the Geoff Tate Band or something similar. Dropping the name doesn’t mean Tate has to ditch the old material; if he wants to continue singing “Silent Lucidity” for the rest of his career during encores, who’s gonna tell him he can’t?

As for Wilton, Rockenfield, Jackson, Lundgren and La Torre, their first instinct — to call themselves “Rising West” rather than “Queensryche” was correct. Tying themselves to the QR name means La Torre will be constantly compared to Tate for rest of his career with the band. Even with new music, people will be saying, “well, Tate would’ve been better” or words to that effect. A new name would give the band its own identity — and again, if La Torre and company still want to bash out “Queen of the Ryche” and “Warning” during shows, that’s their right.

Queensryche was a great band, particularly between the EP and “Empire.” But that band is dead now. Let it rest in peace and move on as something new, guys. You’ll be happier that way.

Randy Blythe trial will not conclude this week; Defense receives postponement until March 4 so witness can appear

Testimony in the manslaughter trial of Lamb of God front man Randy Blythe will not conclude this week — as was previously anticipated — because a defense witness is unavailable to appear.

Blythe is facing manslaughter charges for the May 2010 death of Daniel Nosek, who died of head injuries after falling or being pushed from the stage at a Lamb of God concert in Prague. Blythe was charged by prosecutors last year; if found guilty, Blythe could face up to 10 years in prison.

According to WTVR, the Richmond Va. television station that has been providing regular coverage of the trial, the defense requested the delay because a defense witness who was scheduled to appear became ill. Prague Post reporter Jonathan Crane — who is covering the trial for WTVR — reported the judges will recess the trial after Thursday’s testimony. The trial will resume on March 4.

Crane reports Blythe will return to the United States while the trial is delayed. Crane said Blythe told judges he would return when the trial resumes.

You can find all of WTVR’s trial coverage here.

Blabbermouth.net quoted a Czech-language news source Wednesday that said the person Blythe is seen pushing off the stage in a widely publicized video took the stand in Blythe’s defense.

Blabbermouth cites Novinky.cz, saying Milan Poránek told judges he was not choked by Blythe when Poránek jumped on stage. Blabbermouth says Poránek jumped on stage “at least twice” during the concert.

“I wanted to stagedive and Blythe pulled me to the ground and held me there as I was very drunk,” Blabbermouth quotes Poránek as telling the judges. “(Blythe) did it because of the way I acted, and he was justified in doing so.”

You can read the Blabbermouth report here.

Randy Blythe issues statement about trial, asks fans to stop bashing Czechs

Blabbermouth.net posted the following message from Lamb of God vocalist, which was originally posted on Blythe’s Instagram account. Blythe talks about media accounts of his manslaughter trial — which is currently underway in the Czech Republic city of Prague — and asks fans to not blame the Czech Republic.

Blythe was charged with manslaughter by Czech prosecutors last year, in the 2010 death of Daniel Nosek, who died of head injuries sustained at a Lamb of God concert. Prosecutors allege Blythe caused Nosek’s death by pushing Nosek off the stage during the show. Blythe told the judge during the trial’s first day Monday that he had no contact with Nosek.

Here’s Blythe’s full statement.

“I have read a few news reports of the progress of my case, and trust me — many
things are incorrect. But this is the Internet, and, of course, things are
half-baked anyway. Keep in mind that translation is difficult, and many things
can be lost, for Czech is a VERY DIFFICULT language. So wait and see, as I am.
It is all I can do, except be honest and fight for my freedom in my own way.

“I also have heard of some people (not on here) talking smack about the
Czech Republic, saying, ‘Fuck the Czech Republic,’ etc. This [is] not how it
should be. This is a very sad case, not something to rage at people you do not
know over.

“I am not angry with the Czechs at all. A fan of my band is
dead — what do I have to be angry about? I am an INNOCENT man, but I am also a
very sad man right now. To not be sad in this instance would be inhuman. But mad
at the Czech people? Why would I be mad at them?

“Here, look at this picture — a mother watches her baby. The child reaches out for something new, laughing and chasing a pretty picture in the air. It is the same here as everywhere else. Do you see?!?!?

“Life is beautiful.

“I hope to see y’all soon.”

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