Interview: Bleed The Sky rises above adversity and returns with “Murder The Dance”

Bleed The Sky frontman Noah Robinson insists the Oklahoma City band isn’t cursed. Problems on the road or in the recording studio are pretty common in the music business, Robinson said.

But the members of Bleed The Sky have experienced more than their share of headaches, heartaches and frustrations over the past three years — including the near death of a band member and close friend, the near dissolution of the band and a stop-and-go recording process.

The band survived turmoil that would have wrecked bands with less fire in their hearts. Robinson said the band drew on those frustrations when recording “Murder The Dance,” the follow up the band’s 2005 debut “Paradigm in Entropy.”

“In a lyrical sense, that (turmoil) didn’t manifest itself,” Robinson said, “In a driving sense, I’d say that was 90 percent of the force behind this one. It’s 10 times more aggressive and it’s a lot more cut throat (than ‘Paradigm’).

“There were no boundaries,” Robinson said. ” … That was 100 percent to do with the energy. We still had to show people it was 100 percent Bleed The Sky.”

The band will perform Saturday, Sept. 27 as one of the headliners of the second annual Indianapolis Metal Fest. See the “Upcoming Shows” page for festival information.

In June 2006, during a concert in Louisville, guitarist Wayne Miller was hospitalized with pneumonia and a viral infection. Although he’d been admitted to ICU, Miller told the rest of the band to go on with the tour. But two days later, Miller’s condition deteriorated, and the rest of the band came rushing back to Louisville, fearing Miller would be dead before they arrived.

Miller came out of his coma and recovered, but members Kyle Moorman and Daylen Elsey quit the band, leaving Robinson and drummer Austin D’Amond waiting for Miller to get healthy enough to reform the band.

Permanent damage,  however, had left Miller unable to play guitar at his previous level. Robinson and D’Amond (with Miller’s encouragement) recruited new members and began writing songs for “Murder The Dance.” By early 2007, the band was preparing for the recording studio. 

But recording the album wasn’t an easy process, either.

“It was delay after delay, every single thing,” Robinson said. “(Guitarist) Dave (Culbert) left right before we started recording. What he slowed down was our preparation for the recording, and at that point, it was more a slap in the face to our morale.

“It was the biggest headache I ever had in my life,” Robinson said. The wait was especially frustrating for guitarist Justin Warrick and bassist Ryan Clark, the band’s newest members.

“For Ryan, this is his first band,” Robinson said. “This is his virgin record.”

But the results have been well received, Robinson said.

“We have fans that have grown up with us in southern California and have been coming to shows since (we were) playing for 10 people. They’re coming to shows now and their jaws are dropping,” Robinson said. “We’re 10 times heavier than we ever were. It’s crushing heavy.

“It’s night and day better,” Robinson said. “I don’t think this record would have been the same with the original lineup.”

But “Murder The Dance” isn’t a wall to wall burst of raw aggression. “Occam’s Razor,” the album’s sixth track, is tranquil eye in the center of the album’s typhoon of rage. The song is the counterpart to the previous track, “Morose,” which deal with a difficult period in Robinson’s life.

“We originally intended (“Occam’s Razor”) as an instrumental,” Robinson said. “… It had a real ambiance to it, even without lyrics.

“Lyrically, that song and ‘Morose” are kind of part one and part two,” Robinson said. ‘Morose’ centers on a period where Robinson was depressed and borderline suicidal because of a youthful mistake and how he was able to find peace.

“It’s the calm after the storm,” Robinson said. While cutting the vocals, Robinson was joined at the microphone by Martina Axen, drummer and one of the vocalists for Drain S.T.H.

“She really added a whole different mood,” Robinson said. “It was an honor to me” to work with her on the song.

But “Occam’s Razor” or “Morose” aren’t Robinson’s favorite tracks on the new album.

“My favorite song to perform is ‘Murder The Dance,'” he said. “That’s the one, for all of us, that’s just an ass-kicker, with fists in the air.”

Despite the adversity of the past two years, Bleed The Sky is standing stronger than ever, Robinson said.

“I think some (fans) looked the other way when we went through it … but actual fans and our peers hold us up, because they saw what we went through,” Robinson said.

The Midwest needs eco-black metal

The Midwest is the perfect breeding ground for black metal. Frankly, I’m surprised the region isn’t spawning new black metal bands every day.

Before you read any more, go to the bottom of the post and hit play. Then continue reading to the music. Trust me.

It sounds strange, but places like southern Indiana, southern Illinois and western Kentucky have a lot in common with Norway. No, not mountains: There are no mountains here (the closest real mountains are the Appalachians, about five hours away by car in eastern Kentucky). But what this part of the country — the border of the Midwest and the south — has in common with Norway is an abundance of nature.

And that nature is systematically being destroyed, one power plant and highway at a time.

Many of the early Norwegian bands revered nature, and the environment played a large role in their songwriting. Emperor and Immortal, in particular, wrote extensively about nature. That legacy has been passed on to at least a few of the U.S black metal bands, particularly Wolves in the Throne Room and Agalloch, who both hail from the Pacific Northwest.

Again, there’s quite a difference on the surface between the mountains of Washington and Oregon and the forests and flat fields on this portion of the Midwest — but the key similarity is that both areas have, for now, an abundance of undeveloped areas.

Of course, it’s difficult to build a convenience store or a strip mall on a mountain. But here, environmental destruction is daily business.

On my drive to work, I pass the long stretch of scraped earth, where dozers recently ripped up acres of trees to build a four-lane highway. The highway is needed, because, well, the governor of the great state of Indiana wants to get reelected this year, and he hopes road projects will pave his way to victory. And if new highway doesn’t serve any grander purpose than helping secure some votes, I’m sure he sees that as justification enough.

Meanwhile, at least three new power plants are planned for the region, and a fourth is already under construction in southern Illinois. Most of the new plants are what are called “merchant plants,” because they sell the power they generate to other parts of the country. In other words, New York gets the power and Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois get the smog.

The east coast, with more money and political clout, doesn’t want sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, fine particular matter or ozone that come with even the most advanced power plants that rely on coal. In this region, however, where wages are stagnant, the mention of construction jobs (and a lesser number of permanent power plant jobs) makes politicians jump. Trading environmental quality for economic development is more common than it should be here.

And all that gets me thinking about black metal.

The early Norwegian black metal bands essentially had two goals: To praise nature and to rail against Christianity, which they saw as being guilty of destroying the country’s viking heritage. The Christianity rant doesn’t really apply (you’d be hard-pressed to find a region more religious than here) … but there’s certainly enough nature to praise, and there’s definitely an “enemy” (industry) to combat.

The fight for the future of the planet is taking place here, where the sky is heavy with pollution all summer long, where environmental regulation is seen as an inconvenience — and where demonstrators protesting a new highway to Indianapolis are met at the “groundbreaking ceremony” with riot police, rooftop snipers and a “free speech zone” cordoned off with a metal fence. Wasn’t the entire country a “free speech zone” at one time? Only if you say the “right” things, apparently.

Having covered environmental issues for years, I’ve seen officials regularly disregard public outcry about environmental damage. Protest is considered practically un-American. At the very least, the environmentalists are regarded as “no friend to free enterprise.” That’s almost considered a crime.

In a region where government doesn’t listen and nature is something to simply be paved over, perhaps art is the only real form of protest left.

Black metal is the music of protest. The genre was conceived as a scream against the status quo and a blazing torch of anger tossed toward those who were comfortable with the way things existed. I don’t condone the violent offshoot of Norwegian black metal: The church arsons were indefensible and immature and the murders (committed by Varg and Faust) were pointless, seemingly done with little or no thought. No good came of those acts 

But as a form of protest, the Norwegians created a form of art that still resonates. That’s black metal’s legacy, and part of the reason why it’s still valid today. American eco-black metal could play that role, by helping change the way we look at nature, and altering what we consider “progress.”

I included a link to the Agalloch song “Odal” because much of the band’s music contains a mournful quality. “Odal” is almost impressionistic in its sadness, as if it were written while looking at a forest on the verge of being ripped down to make way for an interstate. As a eulogy for a dying landscape, black metal would serve us well.

If it’s truly impossible to save nature, the least we can do is write a song to lament its passing.

Former “Metal Maniacs” editor discusses influence and impact of progressive metal

Like a lot of American kids in the late1970s, Jeff Wagner’s first communion with heavy metal came from drinking the blood of Kiss. From there, Wagner — with the help of a “kickass” FM radio station — discovered the wonders of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Ozzy and Aerosmith.

But Wagner’s real love was for the metal bands that dared to step outside the mainstream, like Voivod, Queensryche and Fates Warning.

From his hometown in southeast Iowa, Wagner went on to write for fanzines, land a job at Relapse Records and eventually become an editor at Metal Maniacs Magazine.  Wagner is now a staff member at The End records and is writing Mean Deviation: Four Decades of Progressive Heavy Metal, a history of the movement. The book is scheduled to publish in either the summer of fall of 2009.

   “I started following those bands  (like Queensryche, Voivod and Fates Warning) early in their careers, and with every album you were getting a significantly evolved version of what came before,” Wagner said of his love for progressive metal. “It was exciting, you never knew what direction they were going to take. Most importantly, there was some amazing music happening too. Even though Motorhead were making great albums then, you already knew what you were getting. I found the journey of bands like Voivod and Fates Warning infinitely more exciting.”

Wagner recently answered a few questions from Messenger-Inquirer reporter and Noise Pollution blogger James Mayse about the evolution of progressive metal and about how progressive bands have changed metal music.

1. What was Queensryche’s musical evolution? The first EP is very similar to Iron Maiden. But “The Warning” contained computer noise/effects (NM156) and orchestrations, while “Rage For Order” had some truly bizarre parts (“Screaming in Digital” is a song I remember note for note, and I haven’t owned “RFO” for at least 15 years). What changed between the time the EP was released and the band recorded “The Warning”? Was it just a growing confidence in their abilities as a band, or were they inspired by other artists?

First:  break down and purchase another copy of ‘Rage for Order’ immediately! J It’s their masterpiece, even above ‘Operation Mindcrime’, although I know that’s not the consensus. Queensryche were always influenced by non-metal artists as well as their more obvious Maiden/Priest influences, which certainly pushed them into different areas, even early on.

Queensryche

Queensryche

They just had a kind of bravery about them, and along with their theatrical streak, it resulted in some pretty big strides early in their career. As you mention “NM 156” was somewhat groundbreaking as it incorporated sci-fi sound effects and a weird futuristic atmosphere, and “Roads to Madness” is this grandiose, sprawling epic. Their growth from album to album was definitely amazing at that time, certainly beyond their years. They couldn’t have been older than their early 20s at that time. I can’t say what changed between the EP and ‘The Warning’, as I haven’t spoken to them for this book yet. But I think the greatest leap they ever made was from ‘The Warning’ to ‘Rage for Order’.

2. Speaking of influences, was there a common thread between bands like Queensryche, Fates Warning and Dream Theater? Were the bands inspired by the same bands (or books of films, for that matter)? If I remember correctly, Fates Warning had already released albums like “Night on Brocken” and “The Spectre Within” before Queensryche really became popular. Did the bands share influences?

Those bands, and quite a few others featured in this book, all seem to have one common denominator: Rush. There doesn’t seem to be as unified an influence in terms of books or films that the members of these bands shared, but Rush is definitely the influential bond between those three. And each of them, particularly Fates Warning and Dream Theater, took influence from progressive rock bands, from Kansas, Genesis and Pink Floyd, to Marillion, to more contemporary bands like Porcupine Tree.

 
Early Fates Warning (with vocalist John Arch)

Early Fates Warning (with vocalist John Arch)

In fact, progressive rock plays a large role in this story; you can’t tell the story of progressive metal without first understanding progressive rock, its origins and the effect it had on the early ‘80s metal bands. It seems like many progressive metal bands that began in the ‘80s took just as much influence from a band like King Crimson as Black Sabbath.

3. In the movie, “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” the members of Voivod talked about how their music was influenced by growing up in a decaying industrial surrounding. How have things like the environment and landscapes influenced bands like Rush and Voivod? With Rush, maybe there was no influence (although they seem to incorporate woodland sounds in “The Trees,” which is a beautiful song). How did growing up in Norway influence the early black metal bands (Emperor, Immortal), who seem to have an obsession with nature?

I can’t speak for Rush, as I’ve never read anything from the three members that mentions a direct influence on their music by their surroundings. I’ve got a lot of literature on Rush, and I don’t recall anything of that nature. Hopefully I’ll be talking to them for this book, and that’s something I’ll ask them about.

Voivod have definitely noted that the industrial town they grew up in was pretty bleak, and dirty, and noisy, and that would also be a perfect description of their early music, particularly ‘War and Pain’. It’s similar to what both Black Sabbath and Judas Priest have said, regarding their hometown of Birmingham, England; apparently its blue-collar, industrial atmosphere had a great effect on the darkness or bluntness of their music. And probably the escapist nature of it too.

Voivod

The early Norwegian black metal bands seemed compelled by two major non-musical inspirations:  their natural surroundings—the pristine mountains, rivers, waterfalls, fjords, winter/frost/ice, all that seemed to inspire bands to create these huge epic sounds that were also primal and earthy; the second non-musical influence was their rejection of how Christianity and its missionaries overtook the more pagan, earthbound ways of their Nordic ancestors. So yes, that’s a great example of how non-musical influence can have a significant effect on a band’s sound, and in that case it was an entire regional movement. As for the post-black metal avant-garde that arose from the early Norwegian black metal bands (which applies more to my book), I think that was more a movement inspired by other music outside of metal, and in some cases other arts. The nature thing is still there in bands like In The Woods, Fleurety, Ved Buens Ende and later Enslaved…but probably not so much in later stuff by both Dodheimsgard and Ulver.  

4. Speaking of black metal, that’s a genre that’s so broad musically it almost has no definition. How have bands like Emperor (classical influences) and Enslaved (hints of the psychedelic) and Nachtmystium (“stoner” black metal, although that’s a crude definition for so nuanced a band) built on black metal to create their own sounds? In turn, did Emperor’s early works (“Nightside,” “Welkin”) change black metal?

Emperor’s early material changed, or at least sublimated black metal in terms of its symphonic elements. They were probably the best in that area, and I don’t think anyone since has touched that stuff, including Emperor themselves. It’s bands like the ones you mention, Emperor, Enslaved, and Nachtmystium, and even Deathspell Omega and the more avant-garde ones I mentioned in the previous question, that have left the strictures of traditional black metal and have evolved their music for the sake of it, just out of pure creative drive. They don’t seem to regard scene rules or scene limitations.

Emperor

Emperor

So many Norwegian bands have stepped away from, or at least evolved past the origins of what put the country on the metal map in the first place. Some people complain about that, but there are plenty of bands upholding the pure early ‘90s Norwegian black metal ideals, like Darkthrone, Carpathian Forest, Urgehal…there’s no shortage of that stuff.

5. I’ve been listening to Agalloch’s “The Mantle” all afternoon, so here’s a related question. Agalloch has some of the “trademarks” of black metal (raspy vocals, frenetic picking) at times … but the band also has an acoustic side that is quite stunning. Is the band “post metal” or a black metal hybrid? Perhaps the question of nature and influences plays best with Agalloch. It seems as if they’re trying to recreate the feeling of being in nature through music? What are the band’s influences? Do the band members have an artistic “goal” they are trying to accomplish?

Sure, they definitely seem inspired by the nature thing that the Norwegians developed. I guess I would consider them “post-black metal”, yeah, the same way earlier Katatonia is. They don’t really fit into any one category, because they’re just as influenced by bands like Current 93 as they are Katatonia and early Ulver. You’d have to ask the band about their “goal”, I can’t really speak for them on that score.

6. Is industrial metal another form of progressive metal? Is industrial taking the influences of mechanization and attempting to recreate them sonically?

Most industrial metal bores me, so maybe I’m unqualified to say. But I’ll go for it anyway. Just because it’s got an industrial influence (or a folk influence, or a prog rock influence, or a ton of keyboards) doesn’t necessarily make it progressive. The questions should be:  are these bands changing each album? Are they constantly evolving and morphing and searching? Are they not just deviating from the norm in their basic sound, but are they deviating from their previous work to some degree, and trying to travel new and different avenues with each new project? Most of them don’t. Besides, the definition of industrial seems to have lost its true meaning. It’s almost always called “industrial metal” if someone throws an atonal, mechanized, synth-generated beat behind their metal. I’m not sure that’s fair to real industrial bands. Industrial should indeed take “the influences of mechanization” into music, but it’s a much looser definition these days. As I understand industrial music, I understand it to mean bands like Psychic TV or Einsturzende Neubauten, or Front 242 and Skinny Puppy. But then, maybe I don’t understand industrial music at all. To answer your main question, there aren’t a ton of industrial-sounding metal bands in this book, because most of them churn out the same album time after time, and that’s not my definition of progressive. Industrial metal seems to embrace a more static sound and approach than what the definition of “progressive” will allow.

7. We haven’t talked at all about death metal. I find much early death metal rather one-note (or one-grunt), but the genre is showing almost as much variation now as is black metal. What was the first band to take death metal’s “traditional” sound and expand it?

That’s the chapter I’m elbow-deep in writing right now. It’s a tough call. Celtic Frost were considered a death metal band as much as a thrash or black metal band back in the day, and when they released ‘Into the Pandemonium’ in 1987, it was a total radicalization of all that. But I think what you’re talking about is the purer late ‘80s/early ‘90s death metal sound. Around 1990/1991, several bands began expanding the sound and taking it into a more experimental and/or technical area. I think of Disharmonic Orchestra (‘Not To Be Undimensional Conscious’) and Atrocity (‘Hallucinations’ and ‘Todessehnsucht’) in Europe, and here in the states the first that come to mind are Death’s ‘Human’ album and Atheist’s ‘Unquestionable Presence’.

Atrocity

Atrocity

8. Sweden seems to be a hot bed for progressive death metal (or Swedish melodic death metal, as some call it). This might be hard to pin down, but how were the Swedish bands able to take death metal and change it? What were their influences? Was it simply because they weren’t in Florida (or the USA in general) and didn’t have to follow American DM trends?

Plenty of Swedish bands were initially inspired by and continued to be inspired by American death metal, and that evolved into what we know simply as “Swedish Death Metal”…it’s a pretty distinctive sound:  Entombed, Carnage, Dismember, etc. But than the melodic death metal bands, of which In Flames and Dark Tranquillity would be the two main forerunners, and Arch Enemy too, I suppose, they dipped further back in time to bring out the twin-guitar harmonies of classic bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest.

I wouldn’t consider those bands all that progressive though…they were more pioneering, which I think is a bit different. The Swedish bands that will feature most highly in this book, that came out of the Swedish scene, don’t fit squarely into either the “melodic” or “brutal” death metal approaches. Stuff like Edge of Sanity, Afflicted’s first album, Therion, Meshuggah, Pan-Thy-Monium, and Opeth.

9. Would you consider early Metallica albums (“Kill Em All,” “Ride The Lightning”) progressive? It seems the argument could be made … but perhaps the entire San Francisco scene was a progressive hot bed, and Metallica was just one part of that. Were the early thrash bands “progressive” in the sense that they were pushing metal in a new direction?

Well, yes and no. ‘Kill ‘Em All’ was more a pioneering sound than a progressive one. ‘Ride the Lightning’ and the two albums after it, yeah, I think you could easily argue for them being progressive. It gets sort of difficult, and definitely pretty subjective at this point. Good example:  Exodus was a major band, out at the front of the Bay Area scene from its earliest days, and their importance, along with Metallica, can’t be overstated. But Exodus doesn’t really fit anyone’s idea of a progressive band, as once they locked into that sound, they pretty much stayed there, with only minor deviations here and there. They never made their ambitious ‘Master of Puppets’ or anything, that’s for sure. That’s not to take away from them, early Exodus is amazing stuff. Metallica are basically a proto-progressive band, if you want to get into even stupider terminology! They and Megadeth introduced a lot of interesting, ambitious arrangement ideas, a high standard of musicianship, and a more involved approach than most thrash bands of the era. There’s a part in the book that takes a brief look at these two bands, along with Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate, as bands that inspired and helped kick-start the progressive scene that would come later. Two huge names in ‘80s progressive metal, Watchtower and Dream Theater (just on the edge of the ‘80s, but still…) have admitted major influence from Maiden, Mercyful Fate, Megadeth and Metallica in interviews I’ve done for this book. And if I can throw a couple names out there, bands from the Bay Area scene that I count as truly progressive, it’s Anvil Chorus and Blind Illusion. Obscure as hell to many, but influential and important to a lot of bands in that area at the time.

10. Opeth defy all attempts at classification. A “death metal” band, they released an entire album that wasn’t “metal” at all in sound (“Damnation”) and Mikael Akerfeldt has always incorporated classical influences into the band’s sound. What is Akerfeldt’s musical background and were their band’s that influenced Akerfeldt’s musical development?

 
 
 You can probably sum Akerfeldt’s musical background up with two bands: Morbid Angel and Camel. And how different are those bands from one another? I would disagree that he incorporates classical influences…or at least, he does so in an indirect way. He’s hugely inspired by ‘70s prog rock like Camel, Cressida, Comus, even Deep Purple and Uriah Heep. Many of those bands, and so many more from that time, incorporated classical music into hard rock. So Opeth’s classical influence comes second-hand, I think. Others, like Comus, were more folk-oriented, and Camel had more of a jazz/rock hybrid thing going. So take all those ‘70s bands, who were themselves products of prog-rock’s melting pot mentality, and then throw that at inspiration derived from Morbid Angel, Iron Maiden, Voivod and Celtic Frost–all stated influences on Akerfeldt–and there you have Opeth. It’s a pretty awesome thing.

11. I guess I’ve looked at progressive metal as a reaction against “mainstream” metal. But how have the progressive bands impacted the mainstream? What is the musical legacy of Queensryche? Is a genre-bending band like Opeth changing the way metal is made today? I’m sure they’re are copy-cats, but are they’re bands trying to build anew on the foundations poured by the progressive bands?

With things like Queensryche’s “Silent Lucidity”, and Dream Theater’s “Pull Me Under”…it’s more like the chart success of those singles helped those bands find a larger audience. But they haven’t had a hit since. I’m long past trying to figure out the trends of the mainstream. That’s a largely fickle audience, clinging briefly to things then moving on. So I think prog-metal bands haven’t significantly impacted the mainstream, while fleeting mainstream success of these bands and a few others has impacted those bands’ careers in a positive way.

Regarding Opeth, I think they’ve helped some fans of more melodic progressive metal get into death metal vocals. They’re a true crossover band, in the sense that they can tour with everyone from Nevermore and Dream Theater to much heavier bands, and get respect from all those different sorts of listeners. Their success is not only deserved, but they’ve helped tremendously in widening the definition of what a progressive metal band is.

Regarding copycats, there’s really no room for them in “progressive” metal. Of course, there are bands like Ayreon, Evergrey, Symphony X, and so many others, who are clearly influenced by the Big Three (Queensryche, Fates Warning, Dream Theater). They’re bands full of excellent musicians, and even creative musicians, but they aren’t pushing anything totally new out there…I wouldn’t say they’re breaking the kinds of boundaries that make them truly progressive. Ironically, that scene, the new breed of bands like that, are what are largely accepted as “progressive metal”. It’ll get a whole chapter in the book, because the sheer numbers of bands in this vein demands it. I’m sure some people will take issue with my thoughts on these kinds of bands. I’m not even saying they’re categorically bad…just not as progressive as some other bands that deserve the designation.

12. Personal question: What’s your favorite progressive band? Fave prog metal album?

Yeah, tough one! If you’re talking about progressive rock, I’m way into King Crimson, Genesis, Van Der Graaf Generator and more obscure stuff like Supersister and tons of the Italian bands from the ‘70s. As for progressive metal, I don’t think there are two better examples of great progressive metal than Voivod and Fates Warning. And then there’s Rush, who treads the fine line between both prog rock and prog metal.

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Favorite prog metal album? Crap…I hate these kinds of questions. One day it’ll be Voivod’s ‘Angel Rat’, and another it’ll be Fates Warning’s ‘Awaken the Guardian’. Some newer albums that I felt were tremendous include Dream Theater’s ‘Octavarium’, Opeth’s ‘Watershed’, and I think 3’s ‘The End is Begun’ is absolutely tremendous, one of my favorite albums ever. I’m very much into In The Woods’ ‘Omnio’ and Spiral Architect’s ‘A Spectic’s Universe’ also. So, again, I give you multiple answers when you’re only wanting one. My favorite album of all time is Rush’s ‘Moving Pictures’, so maybe that’s your answer.

13. Some people hated “Operation Mindcrime II,” but I like large parts of the album. The end fizzles out, but I was happy to see the band return to their epic and pick up the story. What did you think of “OM II”?

I thought it was a bad idea on paper, before it even came out. There’s just no way you can do justice to a classic album like the original ‘Operation Mindcrime’ when you’ve gone through so many changes, and even downplayed your metal influence, the way Geoff Tate has. I don’t hold anything against him, or them, for that, but I felt it was too calculated, and that never makes for good music. I did give it a chance, tried to approach it with an open mind, and it’s marginally better than I expected. The best thing they’ve done since ‘Promised Land’, but that’s not saying much, as their post-‘Promised Land’ output has been terribly uneventful.

14. Last question. What are the essential progress metal albums a fan should own?

I’m going to compile my Top 25 recommended Prog-Metal albums for the book, but it’s not final yet. It won’t necessarily be personal favorites, and it’s not done yet, but I guess if someone wanted a quick lesson on great progressive metal, you couldn’t go wrong with these 10:

1) Rush – Moving Pictures

2) Cynic – Focus

3) Dream Theater – Images and Words

4 ) Fates Warning – Awaken the Guardian

5) Queensryche – Rage for Order

6 ) Watchtower – Control and Resistance

7) Voivod – Nothingface

8) Psychotic Waltz – Into the Everflow

9) In The Woods – Omnio

10) Opeth – Watershed

 
You can read a review of “Mean Deviation” here.

Review: Opeth’s “Watershed” (Roadrunner)

When the indie Music For the Nations record label folded and Sweden’s Opeth jumped to much larger Roadrunner Records, many fans complained the band had “sold out” to pursue mainstream fame.

But the fears that the label switch would cause band visionary Mikael Akerfeldt and the rest of the Opeth gang to undergo a Metallica “Black Album” transformation or suddenly morph into Nickelback were completely unfounded. Instead of writing 12 five-minute, ready-for-radio songs, Opeth responded with “Ghost Reveries,” an album brimming with serpentine epics (“Ghost of Perdition,” “Harlequin Forest”) haunting menace and some of Akerfeldt’s darkest lyrics and rawest death metal growls. At its best moments, “Ghost Reveries” blended brutality and beauty, often almost within the same breath.

But “Ghost Reveries” was an imperfect album. “Atonement” was pleasant but not terribly memorable, and “Beneath the Mire” suffered from keyboard overload, as if Akerfeldt — unsure how to incorporate new keyboardist Per Wiberg into the sound — wrote the main riff and then tried to wedge keys into the song by hook or crook. While still better than many of the other releases of 2006, “Ghost Reveries” was the first Opeth album that did not surpass its predecessors.

In retrospect, that lack of progression makes sense. The band had gone as far as it could with its lineup and changes were imminent. Guitarist and band co-founder Peter Lindgren left the band after tiring of the long stints on the road, and longtime drummer Martin Lopez called it quits for health reasons that prevented him from touring. Decibel Magazine later quoted Akerfeldt as saying Lindgren’s departure was expected, and that Lindgren had not contributed song ideas in years.

Folding the band was not an option, so Akerfeldt recruited Witchery/Bloodbath drummer Martin Axenrot and former Arch Enemy guitarist Fredrik Akesson to record “Watershed,” an album that lives up to its name by simultaneously pushing the boundaries of aggression and beauty far beyond anything the band has achieved previously.

From left: Fredrik Akesson, Martin Axenrot, Mikael Akerfeldt, Per Wiberg and Martin Mendez

From the opening moments of “Coil,” it’s obvious “Watershed” is entirely new territory. A brief burst of classically laced acoustic beauty, Akerfeldt and guest vocalist Nathalie Lorichs trade melancholy lyrics before the song trails off into a few moments of whistling wind … immediately followed by the ton-of-bricks opening of “Heir Apparent,” a song as dark as anything the band released on “My Arms, Your Hearseor “Blackwater Park.” I don’t throw those comparisons around lightly (“Demon of the Fall” and “The Leper Affinity” from MAYH and BWP still singe my ears off every time), but Akerfeldt sounds absolutely possessed on “Heir Apparent.” The song is a monster, and anyone still lamenting Lindgren’s departure should be silenced by Akesson’s feverish solos. As good as the band was with Lindgren, Akesson pushes the musicianship to even greater heights.

The album takes a less demonic turn with the frantic “The Lotus Eater,” with Akerfeldt switching between clean vocals and death growls at the blink of an eye. “Burden” is a great sweeping ballad with stunning vocals, beautiful solos and lovely bass runs from Martin Mendez. While I was critical of the use of keyboards on “Ghost Reveries,” Wiberg shut me up on “Burden” with a mind-blowing organ solo … before the song intentionally collapses like a dying music box.

“Porcelain Heart” kicks off with another gargantuanly evil riff, followed shortly by a maniac burst of drumming, with Axenrot increasing in speed as the band plays the main riff. The dark clouds suddenly part at the midpoint, for an acoustic interlude that contains … wait, is that an oboe? “Porcelain Heart” is eight minutes of gloomy brilliance.

“Hessian Peel” starts with another acoustic riff and clean vocals. The song seems like another “Burden” style ballad … until the violence kicks in near the six-minute mark and Akerfeldt flies spews forth another burst of devastating death metal roars. The juxtaposition of beauty and aggression has been a hallmark of Opeth’s oeuvre since “Orchid,the band’s first album. Some people might find that combination predictable, but I never cease to be stunned.

“Hex Omega,” while not as intricate as “Heir Apparent” or “Hessian Peel,” is an emotional epic, with Akerfeldt’s clean vocals matching anything he did on “Damnation” or even the glorious “Face of Melinda” from “Still Life.” I complained that the keyboards on “Ghost Reveries” were out of place, but the keys drive “Hex Omega and show Akerfeldt knew what he was doing when he invited Wiberg to join the band.

It’s possible some fans — those who were there from the beginning — are never going to forgive Opeth for signing on to such a large label as Roadrunner. All I can tell those guys is they’re only hurting themselves, because instead of “selling out,” Opeth is creating the best music of its career. “Watershed” is a masterpiece and is the best album released this year, at least so far. I can’t imagine any other band topping this kind of achievement.

www.myspace.com/opeth

Here’s an (abridged) video for “Porcelain Heart,” from Roadrunner’s myspace page. The video itself is a little dumb, but the song’s great. So there.

Also, read an interview with Mikael Akerfeldt, here. The interview was conducted last fall, at the beginning of the “Watershed” tour.