Essential Albums: Bruce Dickinson, “The Chemical Wedding”

Bruce_Dickinson-band-1998-01

After 1988, Iron Maiden took a creative nose dive.

Perhaps the years of extended touring took a toll on the band. Or, perhaps, after the classic 1988 album, “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son,” the band’s well had run temporarily dry. Perhaps the band members were just sick of each other and needed a break.

Whatever the reason, “No Prayer for the Dying” and “Fear of the Dark” were very much hit-and-miss albums. It’s also true that, around 1989, the metal scene began changing dramatically; compared to metal albums like Soundgarden’s “Louder Than Love,” Pantera’s “Vulgar Display of Power,” and Alice in Chain’s “Facelift,” those post “Seventh Son” Iron Maiden albums sounded like an unwelcome time capsule from 1982. Although the song “Fear of the Dark” is a classic, the majority of the early 1990s Maiden output is uninspiring. When guitarist Adrian Smith left during work on “No Prayer” and frontman Bruce Dickinson departed after “Fear of the Dark,” it seemed like the band’s time in the sun was over.

In Jeff Wagner’s biography on progressive metal, Mean Deviation, Dickinson says he was frustrated by Maiden’s desire to stay on the well-trod NWOBHM path. Shortly before and then after leaving Maiden, Dickinson’s made several well-received solo albums — “Tattooed Millionaire,” “Balls to Picasso,” “Skunkworks” and “Accident of Birth” — which certainly had some shades of Maiden, while showing Dickinson wasn’t afraid to go his own way.

All of those albums have high points and bright moments, but Dickinson’s solo masterpiece was 1998’s “The Chemical Wedding.”

Darker and heavier than anything Dickinson had done with Maiden, “The Chemical Wedding” paired Dickinson with guitarist/producer Roy Z, Adrian Smith on second guitar and the searing rhythm section of Eddie Casillas (bass) and David Ingraham (drums). Dickinson and Z co-wrote the album (with a couple assists from others in the band), and the two had a musical connection that really shines here. The album was far better than anything Maiden had done without Dickinson in the 1990s, and can stand toe-to-toe with Maiden’s best work in the 1980s. It’s an album that shouldn’t be missed.

“The King in Crimson” opens the album with a downtuned, minor-key roar that is more Black Sabbath than Iron Maiden. But even the Sabbath reference lasts only for the first 30 seconds, before kicking into a driving rhythm. Dickinson spits out the lyrics with venom in his voice, and solos are hard-hitting. It makes for a compelling start.

A word about the solos. Anyone familiar with Maiden will recognize Smith’s guitar style, which fits well here. Roy Z’s style is very different — Z often hits with a blizzard of notes in his solos. It’s not the Smith/Dave Murray combination familiar to Maiden fans, but it works. Smith and Z also shine while playing in unison, like on the solo for “The Tower.”

“Chemical Wedding” is one of the standout tracks on the album — it’s big, grand, operatic and pounding, with a superb performance by Dickinson. “The Tower” also impresses, with a sinewy guitar line, a pulse-pounding rhythm and another one of those great Dickinson choruses he nails so often on the album.

“Killing Floor” is not at all bad, but not quite up to the power of the first tracks. But all memory of “Killing Floor” is wiped away immediately by the rage of “Book of Thel,” which displays Dickinson at the angriest he’s ever sounded in his career. It’s a stunning, blazing roar, one hundred times darker than anything Maiden achieved on “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son” (the darkest of the band’s ’80s albums). Midway through, the tempo shifts upward for a pair of fiery solos, particularly by Roy Z. Somehow, the band manages to wind the tempest down to a piano coda and a bit of poetry.

“Gates of Urizen” is slower in tempo (but not quite a ballad), that nicely showcases Dickinson’s ability to sing softly when he wants (although he does soar on the choruses). It’s a solid track, but it gets eclipsed by “Jerusalem,” a reworking of a classic English song that gives Dickinson a chance to indulge his inner Medieval bard. I suppose it jars a bit, compared to the angry outbursts of “King in Crimson,” “Killing Floor” and “Book of Thel.” But, it’s a great work, lovely, even. The twin guitars of Smith and Z also shine again.

“Trumpets of Jericho” is a rousing blast of anger and angst, with one of Dickinson’s best vocal performances on the album. It’s a fast, dirty, heavy track, with quite a lot of power. It’s a powerhouse, the first of a powerhouse triple-play that ends the disc.

While comparisons to previous Maiden songs are easy (and lazy), “Machine Men” is another examination of the themes of “Two Minutes of Midnight” — but it’s sung from a place of such hate that it’s mind-blowing. “Turn the lights down in your soul/Cut the power to your heart,” Dickinson bites out, with a bile so fierce Dickinson sounds ready to kill. It’s chilling and hair-raising. Which, of course, makes it a standout.

“The Alchemist” closes the album on a somber note. It’s musically a bit more subdued than what came immediately before, but Dickinson’s operatic delivery is stellar. It’s perhaps the most Maidenesque song on the album (this song would have fit well on “Seventh Son,” and would’ve closed that disc better than “Only The Good Die Young”). In a nice bit of symmetry, Dickinson circles back to “Chemical Wedding” to close out the song.

I spend too much time debating whether certain albums or bands are “progressive” or not, but I think a good argument can be made that Dickinson really stretched his creative wings on “The Chemical Wedding.” It’s bold in it’s dark moments, while also containing a beauty on songs like “Jerusalem” that likely would have been ruled out place on a Maiden album. Dickinson’s skills as a songwriter are really on display here. After the power of “The Chemical Wedding,” Dickinson was able to rejoin Maiden not as a man needing a career boost (since he was actually in a stronger position than Maiden at the time, I’d say), but as a songwriter and performer at the absolute top of his game.

As a postscript, I’d  say the influence of “The Chemical Wedding” has been felt on some of Maiden’s 21st Century work. Maiden’s disturbing and powerful “A Matter of Life and Death” has a “Chemical Wedding” vibe particularly on tracks like “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” and “For The Greater Good of God.”

I don’t know if every Maiden fan will love it, because it’s way darker (there’s that word again) and bleaker than the traditional Maiden album. But listeners wanting to hear one the best vocalists in metal (if not the best vocalist in metal) grapple with a titanic metal monster, and win, should track down “The Chemical Wedding.” I don’t get the feeling it did much business in the U.S., which is too bad. It’s an album that deserves to be heard.

Essential Albums: S.O.D. “Speak English Or Die”

'80s era S.O.D.: Charlie Benante, Billy Milano, Scott Ian and Dan Lilker

I missed most of the punk movement; 1970s era punk, with the Ramones, Clash and Sex Pistols, happened while I was busy watching “Seasame Street” and Saturday morning cartoons … and the ’80’s punks (Dead Kennedy’s, Suicidal Tendencies, Dead Milkmen, Descendents, Circle Jerks, etc.) were entertaining at points, but were decidedly hit-and-miss, musically. Most of the punk-metal crossover bands (like D.R.I.) never made a real impression on me.

There’s was only one “punk” band that meant anything to me back in the 1980s – S.O.D., the Stormtroopers of Death.

A “crossover” project featuring Scott Ian and Charlie Benante of Anthrax, Dan Lilker of Nuclear Assault and punk vocalist/lyricist Billy Milano, S.O.D.’s sole 80s era album, “Speak English Or Die,” was the funniest and evilest album I’d ever heard. Even today, “Speak English Or Die” spits menace and bile with such force it’s hard to believe Megaforce Records had the courage to release it. This is an face-stomping album, full of uncouth opinions and dirty music.

For the uninititated, “crossover” blended the distortion and riffage of metal with the blazing speed, frenetic energy and g0-to-hell attitude of punk. Thrash was influenced by punk … but crossover was punk, just with a meatier sound. Imagine if every song Metallica ever made were 2-minutes long and sounded like “Fight Fire With Fire,” minus the acoustic intro and guitar solos and you have a good general idea of the crossover sound.

It’s not surprising, in retrospect, that Ian and Benante wanted to bridge the gap between punk and metal. Just a couple years after “Speak English Or Die” hit the streets, Anthrax teamed up with hip-hop originals Public Enemy for a rap-metal crossover cover of P.E.’s “Bring The Noise” (the two bands also toured together on a “best of both worlds” tour that likely created convert fans on both sides).

I could spout the origins of “Speak English Or Die” to you, but do you care? Decibel Magazine did a big spread on the album when they inducted “Speak English Or Die” into the rag’s hall of fame. You want history, go there.

“Speak English Or Die” is raw, dirty and politically incorrect from beginning to end. The riffs are crude and savage while retaining the catchiness that make Anthrax albums so interesting (guitarist Ian wrote or co-wrote the majority of the songs). Meanwhile, Billy Milano is about as rude and nasty as you’d ever expect from a punk howler and Benante and Lilker bash out the rhythms at break-neck speeds.

“Speak English Or Die” preceeded Slayer’s “Reign In Blood,” so I can’t help but wonder if “Speak” had an influence on “Reign In Blood.” The albums are very similar; both albums are full of songs that compress multiple riffs into short, concise packages. Slayer’s performance is better than S.O.D.’s, to be sure, but the two albums are certainly cut from the same punk-metal cloth.

“March of the S.O.D./Sgt. D. and the S.O.D.” is a fun little stomper, with a lumbering riff for the “March,” followed by the faster, ragged “Sgt. D.” Lyrically, Milano sets the tone for rest of album with the violent, ragged, blistering tale of Sgt. D. It’s a take-no-prisoners opener.

“Kill Yourself” is the first serious dive into hardcore punk. The riff is faster than a runaway train, Benante’s drumming is frenetic and Milano spits out the lyrics with machine gun rapidity. Lyrically, the song is rude, crude, obnoxious and overwhelmingly funny.

I won’t go through a track by track analysis, but highlights include “Milano Mosh,” which opens with a slow beat before flying of the track with a Lilker/Benante chaotic blast; “Speak English Or Die” is a Milano rant against immigrant NYC street venders. As sentiments go, “speak English or die” isn’t very nice … but punk was never a “nice” genre; rather, punk’s purpose was to either speak ugly truths, or to just be ugly. “Speak English Or Die” is about as ugly as a song gets … but good god, did I ever laugh myself sick the first time I heard it. Sue me.

“United Forces” is cry for punk-metal brotherhood (the genres did not mix easily in the 1980s – read the Decibel piece on “Speak English” for more on that). Other awesome tracks include “Freddy Krueger,” “Milk,” “Pre-Menstrual Princess Blues,” “Pussy Whipped” and “F*ck The Middle East.” None of this music is “nice,” and the album couldn’t or wouldn’t be released today, which is too bad. The album is like a time capsule from the 1980s, before political correctness and sensitivity took away the ability to say anything controversial or antagonizing.

It’s all tasteless as it sounds … but relax, it’s just tongue-in-cheek toilet humor. Here’s a selection of S.O.D. “ballads,” for  your listening “pleasure.”

S.O.D. did at least a bit of touring, but the band didn’t record anything new until 1999. That album, “Bigger Than The Devil,” certainly has some fun moments and big metal riffs … but it doesn’t quite match up to the power of “Speak English Or Die.”

It seems unlikely there will be a third S.O.D. album. I’m not sure Milano and Lilker are on speaking terms with Ian or Benante anymore … you can read an interview where Lilker trash Ian and Benante on Milano’s Web site, if you ‘re really excited about sh*t-talking.  But even if there’s never a new S.O.D. album, we’ll always have the foul-tasting punk-metal head-smash that is “Speak English Or Die.” Highly recommended.

Essential albums: Alice In Chains, “Dirt”

Let me start this review by telling you two things:

1) In 1993, Alice In Chains’ “Dirt” was the most important album in the world to me.

2) After 1993, about 12 years passed before I was able to listen to “Dirt” again.

I won’t bore you with a bunch of personal history (we’re here to talk about metal, not blather about our freakin’ feelings, for crying out loud), but it’s not an exaggeration to say that “Dirt” kept me alive and sane at a time when staying alive wasn’t a high priority and being sane didn’t seem worth the bother. It was a dark time and one of the things that pulled me through it was “Dirt.” I’m indebted.

Apparently, the guys in Alice In Chains felt much the same way. How else can anyone explain how the band created such a beautiful, painful, raging and thoroughly cathartic piece of art?

“Dirt” was the band’s sophomore full-length album. While their 1990 major label debut, “Facelift,” had some excellent songs (“We Die Young,” “I Can’t Remember,” “It Ain’t Like That,” “Real Thing” and, to a lesser extent, “Man in the Box”), the rest of the album was either forgettable or mediocre. It was the five-song, mostly acoustic and haunting EP “Sap” that showed AIC had more up their sleeve than shock value and possessed the potential to be more than just a nihilistic Soundgarden.

“Dirt” and “Sap” were released eight months apart in 1992 – “Sap” in February and “Dirt” in October. The albums have little in common sonically – “Sap” is mellow while “Dirt” shrieks almost from the first note to the last – but there’s a deep melancholy in both albums that is hard to miss. Both are steeped in depression, but “Dirt” is a quiet meditation while “Dirt” is scream therapy.

Vocalist Layne Staley and guitarist Jerry Cantrell, the band’s main songwriters, matured considerably as artists in the years between “Facelift” and “Dirt.” The juvenile horror stories that littered “Facelift,” such as “Love Hate Love” and “Confusion” are gone. Also, nothing on “Dirt” feels like filler; even the hallucinatory, whacked-out, one-minute blast of “Iron Gland” feels absolutely right and necessary. Not a note is wasted.

“Them Bones” sets the tone, with an unrelenting, off-kilter riff. “Off-kilter” is an apt musical description for “Dirt;” the songs are structured on minor chords and odd time-signatures and Staley and Cantrell’s vocal harmonies are often beautiful yet jagged. “Them Bones” ratchets up the tension with Cantrell’s climbing riff – a riff that marches up to the musical cliff without providing a satisfying climax. The song ends abruptly, leaving the listener hanging in midair. Can I be blunt? It’s f***ked up s**t.

“Dam The River” could almost be normal, except that Cantrell’s guitar keeps buzzing and launching grace notes that keep the whole song off-balance. “Rain When I Die” is the sound of a binge gone bad, or a habit that’s turning quickly into a life-destroying addiction. Yes, it’s no shocker or secret that most of what Staley penned for “Dirt” was about his soon-to-be-totally debilitating drug addiction and there’s a pain and roar of self-hate here that’s frightening and yet so candid and honest that it’s refreshing. Remember, this was 1992 – “emo” (which, to me, seems like nothing more than some haircut kid crying about his girlfriend) – hadn’t been invented, so hearing a man actually talk about having a real, freakin’ emotion was nothing less than a revelation. Back then, kids, men weren’t allowed to have emotions – or at least they weren’t allowed to talk about them.

“Down in a Hole” is a suicide note written years in advance and “Sickman” is a trip in an ambulance after the overdose. “Rooster” is the only song that strays from the theme. A song about Cantrell’s father’s time in Vietnam, it’s heartfelt without being congratulatory or full of heroism or honor. “Rooster” is a song about survival, which makes it unique in an album otherwise committed to death.

“Junkhead” may seem like a celebration of drug addiction, but “self-justification” is probably a better description. “If you’d let yourself go and open your mind, I bet you’d be doing like me and it ain’t so bad,” Staley sings – but it’s obvious even he doesn’t believe it. “Junkhead” is Staley whistling, unconvincingly, past the grave yard he knows is about to claim him. To call “Junkhead” sad is simply not adequate. It’s heartbreaking.

“Dirt” burns with an acid hallucination of a riff and Staley spits out the words like a man in a cold fury. Of course, Staley’s rage is all self-directed. The song bites into your stomach. Although it was never one of the band’s hits, “Dirt” is the band’s (and album’s) masterpiece. Even today, it’s a song that cuts like broken glass.

“Godsmack,” while hardly cheery, at least is a bit more up-tempo and “Iron Gland” is a mad carnival of rushing manic feeling. It doesn’t last, though. It can’t. The band flies into a twisted dirge, with spastic surges, on “Hate To Feel.” There’s a doom metal vibe on “Hate To Feel.” Simply put, this song scares the bejeezus out of me every freakin’ time.

“Angry Chair” somehow almost became a hit, or at least it got a decent amount of radio play. How that happened is quite beyond me; it’s hard to imagine a song with such real self-loathing ever being played on rock radio today (these days, you’re only allowed to be angry at your parents on the radio – thanks for that, Disturbed, you cheap hacks). I’ve tried and tried to think of an adjective to describe “Angry Chair,” but the best I can do is this: “Angry Chair” is the sound of hell coming down. It’s “brutal” in a way the angriest death metal band never achieves. “Angry Chair” is Staley turning himself inside out. It’s genius, kids. It’s gawddamm bloody horrific genius.

“Would?” is almost hopeful after “Angry Chair,” but only almost. The vocal duets are gorgeous and the chorus always blows me away. It’s just the right end.

You know the rest of the story. After “Dirt,” the band recorded another long EP (“Jar of Flies”) and one more full-length album (the self-titled “Alice in Chains”) in the studio with Staley on vocals. When Staley died of drug overdose, the news felt almost expected, a letter delayed but arriving at last.

Last year, the band returned with a new album (“Black Gives Way to Blue”) and co-vocalist/guitarist William DuVall, who shares mic duties with Cantrell. The album is solid and well-done and the band’s new incarnation is refreshing. But while I’m looking forward to hearing more albums from Alice In Chains, I can’t imagine any new album having quite the same impact at “Dirt.” It’s the album for which the band will be remembered.

For love of Queensryche

Ever done something you knew was right, but felt guilty about it anyway?

Last year, I wrote a rather dismissive review of Queensrÿche’s “American Soldier.” In short, I said the concept was strong and handled tastefully, but the music was dull and not terribly metal. I look back at that interview now and I still agree with every word. I bought a copy of “American Soldier” so I could do the review … and after I was done, I never had the urge to listen to the album again.

But writing negatively about Queensrÿche felt a lot like kicking a good friend when he is down. My QR fandom goes way back to the mid-1980s; I really do have a copy of “The Warning” on cassette that is probably 25 years old and I bought the band’s albums religiously up to and including “Empire.” I even saw the band do “Operation: Mindcrime” in its entirety on the “Empire” tour and remember the show to this day.

So today, I wanna go back, way back into those halcyon days of the 80s/early 90s and give you a Queensrÿche appreciation, if you will. Sorry I didn’t like “American Soldier,” guys, but I still think you’re great.

Let’s start at the beginning with the band’s debut ep in 1983. Really, only two of the four songs were truly mind-bending – but those songs were so good they catapulted the band to near the top of my teenaged “favorite bands” list. “Queen of the Ryche” is part Iron Maiden gallop with a hint of proto-thrash and a set of guitar solos (including a dual solo) that must have melted the amplifiers. Geoff Tate’s vocal range was stunning (the man could nail a high C note fairly effortlessly).

Compared to what the band did on its next three albums, “Queen of the Ryche” isn’t the band’s best work … but it’s still a great song and it was a million times more advanced than anything say, Motley Crue, Ratt or any of the “hair” bands were doing at the time.

The band was most likely forced by EMI to shoot a hilariously weird video, where the band battles a scantily clad, well endowed, helmet-wearing evil queen woman for control of a post-apocalyptic computer (or something along those lines). I don’t get it … but again, it’s a great song.

“Nightrider” and “Blinded” weren’t all that memorable, but, hey, this was the band’s debut – the time when Queensrÿche albums would be mandatory listening from beginning to end were still a few years away. But “The Lady Wore Black” is a thing of beauty, with an acoustic melody and verse leading into the metal chorus before switching again to heavy. Tate is great here. From “Queen of the Ryche” and “The Lady Wore Black,” the future promised great things from the band.

The band’s first full-length album, “The Warning,” more than delivered on that promise. “The Warning” was released one year after EMI released the ep, but that’s misleading; the band had already sold thousands of copies of the ep before EMI came calling, so its reasonable to assume Tate, guitarists Michael Wilton and Chris DeGarmo had long been working on material for their followup.

A truly bizarre album, “The Warning” is adventurous in ways even bands like Iron Maiden weren’t willing to be at the time. While not exactly a concept album, many of the songs – “Warning,” “En Force,” “NM 156,” “Child of Fire,” “Before The Storm,” “Deliverance” – are similar in their futuristic, doomsday-infused themes. Highlights? Hell, only “En Force” is less than great … and I’m reluctant to go even that far. If you have a house full of beautiful children, how do you decide which you like the least? No kidding, I loved this album. Dark and moody, “The Warning” was my musical companion on more than a few summer nights back in the ’80s.

“Rage for Order” was a bit of a lyrical change for Queensrÿche. Instead of an entire album of techno-apocalypse, much of “Rage” deals with … uh … love and relationships. Yeah, I was a bit wigged out, too, and not all of the lovey-doveyness works: “The Killing Words,” while not bad, was uncharacteristically weak compared to the tracks on “The Warning.” The other love songs, “I See in infrared,” “Walk in the Shadows” and particularly “London,” however, are very strong … and the quirky, twisted “Gonna Get Close to You” is both wacky-kooky fun and more than a little unnerving.

“Rage” shifts back to Ryche-style armageddon with “Surgical Strike,” and really pours out the madness on “Neue Regel,” “Chemical Youth (We Are Rebellion)” and the outlandishly chaotic “Screaming in Digital.” The remaining tracks, “The Whisper” and “I Will Remember” are very good, with “I Will Remember” closing the album on a quiet note.

Not everyone loved “Rage For Order.” Some said the love songs were too commercial while others were likely just confused by the weirdness of songs like “Screaming in Digital.” But in my opinion, “Rage” holds up, with good songs and solid performances from a band that was more than willing to experiment. 

The consensus is Queensrÿche reached its musical pinnacle with 1998’s “Operation:Mindcrime.” It’s hard to argue otherwise; with “Mindcrime,” the band was at its most political and lyrically complex … and if they weren’t quite as mind-bendingly experimental as on “The Warning” or “Rage,” Tate, Wilton and DeGarmo had certainly developed their songwriting skills to the point where could effortlessly write epics like “Revolution Calling,” “Eyes of a Stranger,” Speak” and “The Mission.”

When I placed “Mindcrime” in the CD play a few days ago, I was surprised at how fresh it still sounds. The riffs are impressive, the solos are incredible and Tate’s lyrics seem ripped from today’s headlines instead of being more than 20 years old. Beautiful, dark and ultimately, terribly depressing, “Operation:Mindcrime” is a classic album. It’s the QR album to which every subsequent QR album would be compared.

“Empire” was released in 1990 and was the band’s biggest commercial success. The album had a few mainstream rock radio hits, particularly “Jet City Woman,” “Another Rainy Night (Without You)” and, of course, “Silent Lucidity,” which was inescapable on radio for freakin’ years.

After “Operation:Mindcrime,” the band had likely gone as far as it could with political/social lyrics (although “Resistance” and “Della Brown” take on political and social themes song and  the song “Empire” is a strong, surprisingly conservative look at crime and what Tate saw as a lack of resources for police departments).

With “Empire,” Queensrÿche had matured completely as songwriters, and if the songs aren’t necessarily as complex as those on “Operation:Mindcrime,” they are certainly more polished. The best song, “Della Brown,” isn’t “metal” at all, but it’s one of the best songs on the band’s career.

But overall, I felt “Empire” was a bit lacking. With a major emphasis on love and relationships, “Empire” wasn’t as compelling for me as the albums that came before. Also,the album was safe, with the band taking none of the chances that had gotten them notices on “Warning,” and “Rage” … but beyond that criticism, there isn’t really a “weak” track to be found on the album. I got to the point where I couldn’t stand “Silent Lucidity,” but perhaps I was in the minority.

I didn’t follow Queensrÿche any further into the 1990s after “Empire.” As people say in breakups, it wasn’t them, it was me: My tastes in metal had moved on, and Queensrÿche didn’t interest me in those years. By the time the band released their followup to “Empire,” my favorite albums were Soundgarden’s “Louder Than Love” and Alice In Chain’s Dirt (both of those bands, like Queensrÿche, were also from Seattle). When I started doing a metal radio show in college a few years later, I was spinning bands like Carcass, Entombed, Candlemass and Pantera (along with hardcore punk like Dead Kennedys) and had left Queensrÿche behind.

I started this remembrance by noting my disappointment in “American Soldier,” but I don’t want to end on such a sour note. So, instead, let me tell you how pleased I was to find Queensrÿche alive and vital in 2006, when the band released “Operation:Mindcrime II.”

I know, I know – much of the consensus was “O:MII” was a fallback for the band, an attempt to recapture much of their lost metal audience. To that, I say, “oh bull.” In my opinion “Mindcrime II” was the sound of a band returning to do what they do best – experiment and push their musical limits. I don’t care about the general opinion; I liked that album, and the more challenging parts have grown on me over time.

“Operation:Mindcrime II” picks up the story 18 years later, with Nikki being released from prison. Society, he finds, is as diseased as it was when he was incarcerated, but that’s not his focus. Nikki spent his entire time behind bars dreaming of killing “Dr. X,” the mastermind behind the assassination plot to which Nikki provided the trigger finger. And, of course, X was responsible for killing Nikki’s love, the ex-prostitute and conspiracy member “Sister Mary.” In this one, politics take a back seat to Nikki’s personal need for revenge.

But to the music: “I’m American” is a raging gate-crasher, stronger than anything on “Empire,” and it ranks along “Revolution Calling” as one of the band’s most compelling songs. The album has other riveting moments – “One Foot in Hell” is great, “The Hands” is an eerie number with strong harmonies from Tate,” “Re-Arrange You” is powerful and “Hostage” is simply stunning, with a chorus that gives me chills every time. “Murderer?” harkens back to the massive experimentation of “Rage For Order”: It’s the weirdest song on the album and reminds me of the no-holds-barred band that once recorded “Screaming in Digital.” The album closer, “All The Promises” is, frankly, just a damn pretty song.

Not everything quite works. The female vocals are great in “One Foot in Hell,” but are often overused. And, frankly, not every experiment works – the second half of “Speed of Light” meanders and “The Chase,” with guest co-vocalist Ronnie James Dio, starts well but ends up sounding like a metal Broadway musical.

But what I admire about “O:MII” is the band’s willingness to take chances. They could’ve played it safe and simply written 17 copies of “Operation:Mindcrime” songs. Instead, they threw in tons of new ideas and didn’t let the fear of comparisons to the original scare them into musical timidity. It takes repeated listens, but “Operation:Mindcrime II” is well worth the effort you’ll devote to listening.

Some people gave up on Queensrÿche when Chris DeGarmo left the band, but that’s not fair. DeGarmo’s replacement, Mike Stone, is an excellent guitarist (check out the dual guitar solo on “I’m American”) and “Operation:Mindcrime II” shows the band can still write great songs. In retrospect, the biggest problem with last year’s “American Soldier” was the band played it too safe.

What’s to come? I hear the band is recording again. I hope the end result wows me … but if not, they’ve already given me more than I could want. Even if I don’t go along for the ride next time, I’ll still respect them for all they’ve done. They deserve to be revered as one of the greatest bands in metal.

Essential Albums: Probot (S/T)

Dave Grohl, with Lemmy and Wino

Nirvana may not have been a strictly “metal” band, but they had a metal sensibility that is impossible to deny.

Take “Senseless Apprentice” from the band’s final studio album, “In Utero.” The riffs, drumming and vocal delivery are straight metal. Even the band’s biggest hits, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Heart Shaped Box” were driven by large metal riffs in the choruses. In an interview published some years ago, former band drummer Dave Grohl said fellow band mates Kurt Cobain and Chris Novoselic were big fans of metal bands like Celtic Frost.

Nirvana differed from the metal aesthetic in that metal music (generally) is considered powerful and empowering by listeners, while Nirvana’s discography was more about powerlessness, hopelessness and indifference (Yeah, I know the previous assertion about “powerlessness, hopelessness and indifference” being the key themes of Nirvana’s music is extremely subjective. But that’s my opinion, so there. Feel free to tell me to get stuffed if you disagree. Thanks.)

But in terms or riffs and song structure, it’s hard to doubt Nirvana had a connection to metal. So it was no surprise to me at all when Grohl proved his love for obscure metal with the fabulous 2004 Probot project.

By the time Grohl realized his ambitious goal with Probot, he was already close to a household name in rock music. After Nirvana, Grohl recorded a bunch of his own songs himself and released them under the name Foo Fighters. A short time later, Grohl’s Foo Fighters were a full-time band, with a string of rock radio hits and high-selling albums.

While Foo Fighters have less of a metal influence than Nirvana, Grohl had grown up listening to underground metal and had a devotee’s love for the genre. Perhaps expecting a hard sell from the metal vocalists he wanted to record with on Probot, Grohl sent demos of the songs to each.

Apparently, none thought Grohl was attempting to be ironic – joining Grohl for Probot are a string of metal legends, including godfather of metal Lemmy (Motorhead), Cronos (of the first black metal band, Venom) Dennis “Snake” Belanger (of sci-fi art-metal geniuses Voivod) and King Diamond (the Merciful Fate/King Diamond vocalist who once famously scared the hell out of a young Metallica, who were sharing rehearsal space with the King). Also joining Grohl on the outing are the current/former lead singers for Sepultura, D.R.I., Corrosion of Conformity, Celtic Frost, The Obsessed, Cathedral and Trouble.

Grohl’s accomplishment with “Probot” takes some consideration to appreciate. Do this: Stop for a minute and imagine trying to write a song for Lemmy. That’s not as easy as it sounds – Lemmy built his career on Motorhead’s signature sound. That style is easy to imitate … but your average copy cat Motorhead is, usually, rather boring.

But what Grohl does again and again on “Probot” is get the style right of the band he is honoring, without crafting songs that sound like throwaway B-sides. “Shake Your Blood,” which features Lemmy on bass as well as vocals, feels like authentic Motorhead. You could see Lemmy adopting this song into a Motorhead set and having it fit alongside “Ace of Spades” or “Rock ‘n Roll.”

“Sweet Dreams” is another good example. The song is not a King Diamond rip-off – it freakin’ sounds like King Diamond. The same is true with “Dictatorsaurus;” Grohl has absorbed so much of Voivod’s sound that he practically becomes a one-man Voivod, capturing the band’s chaotic, discordant atmosphere. This is damn impressive stuff.

Lemmy, Chronos, Wino and former Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil all contribute bass lines and guitar solos on certain songs, but for the most part, Grohl handles most of the music. Not every song is perfect; “Ice Cold Man,” with vocalist Lee Dorrian is only s0-so — but the rest of the disc is a grand slam, particularly “Silent Spring” with DRI vocalist Kurt Brecht, “Big Sky” with Tom G. Fischer and “My Tortured Soul” with Eric Wagner of Trouble.

The closest “Probot” comes to irony is “I Am The Warlock,” a bonus track featuring a roaring Jack Black in full-metal mode. Yes, it’s funny to hear Black bellow “I’m going to f*** your mind up,” but is it irony? Look at it like this; 1) The music is straight metal; 2) Black has a metal frontman’s voice, and 3) Dio was in Black’s movie, “Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny.” Was Dio in your movie? No? Then quit talking about Black being ironic with metal – if Black was cool enough for RJD, he’s cool enough for you.

I wish Grohl would roll out a “Probot II,” but I doubt it’ll happen. At least we have this labor of love. Highly recommended.

Essential Albums: Nine Inch Nails, “Year Zero”

Today is the first of several “essential album” reviews that might be controversial. Some of my picks might not seem to fit the normal metal mode, might not be considered “metal” enough by some – and one or two might not appear to fit the “metal” category at all. But I’ll argue that each is indeed metal, even if they tend to break the rules and throw conventions aside.

To kick this off, I couldn’t think of a better first choice than the most metal-non-metal I’ve heard in the last four years – Nine Inch Nail’s mesmerizing 2007 release, “Year Zero.”

NIN auteur Trent Reznor has always skirted the line between metal, industrial, alternative and pop. Often, Reznor mixes elements of all (with beats that seem occasionally inspired by hip-hop) into a genre-defying roar that can be violent and frightening at times and danceable a few minutes later.

Lyrically, Reznor’s music was often intensely personal, although he did begin venturing into politics on “Year Zero’s” immediate predecessor, “With Teeth.” But “Year Zero” went beyond the debates of its time and plunged fully into a dystopian nightmare of religious fanaticism, unending war, environmental collapse, mass disillusion (and, perhaps, mass hallucination) and world-ending apocalypse.

The very nature of the work probably turned off a lot of people. “Year Zero” is a political broadside against then President George W. Bush, whose policies post Sept 11, 2001 led the United States into two wars. The tax cuts of the Bush years and the administration’s rejection of the Kyoto climate treaty (which Bush had indicated he would sign when he was a candidate first running for president) are also addressed – although not as current events. Instead, Reznor sets “Year Zero” in 2020, postulating what the world would be like if the Bush policies were continued and the “Religious Right,” which was certainly a large part of Bush’s political base, became the dominant political force in American life.

“HYPERPOWER!” the brief intro, sets the tone for what’s to come. A military drum starts the march and a heavily fuzzed guitar layers on a wall of electronic-distortion noise. Voices (chants, screams) are interlaced with half-hidden gunshots, falling bombs, terrified shrieks and explosions. It’s a nasty, jarring 50 seconds.

“The Beginning of the End” opens with an almost undistorted guitar over a simple beat. “Down on your knees/you’ll be Left Behind,” Reznor’s speaker intones, later turning the supposedly Christian tenant of charity on its head with “You wait your turn, you’ll be last in line/Get out the way, cuz I’m getting mine … God helps the ones that can help themselves.” The song is one of compromised beliefs and ideals rejected for political expediency and comfort, but the speaker is not unaware that what has really been given away is both the planet and his soul: “We think we’ve come so far, on all our lies we depend/We see our consequence, this is the beginning of the end.” A “solo” of raw noise blasts through before the roar cuts out and the drums march to a close.

“Survivalism” is the sound of society coming apart in the face of environmental collapse. The earth is exhausted, the speaker knows it, but it’s too late for anything more than passing regret. “You see your world on fire/don’t try to act surprised,” the speaker says. Musically, the songs a head stomp of dark noise rumbles juxtaposed against a chanted chorus and a wall-of-sonic-hell riff that leads the song to the disintegration point.

“The Good Soldier” is a change in tone. While the first three tracks were unabashedly heavy, “The Good Soldier” is slower and less musically jarring. While not exactly a pop song, the track is content to groove, with a hip-hop beat, mildly distorted guitar and a vibraphone at the chorus. Lyrically, the song is about losing faith in all the things that once were thought important. “Blood hardens in the sand, cold metal in my hand,” the solider says, “… There’s nowhere left to hide, cuz God is on our side/I keep telling myself.”

“Vessel” is another lumbering march, with a “riff” of pure electro-noise and a chanted chorus. The layers of noise overwhelm the ears pretty quickly, fitting well with the predictions of collapse. “Me, I’m Not” is a creeping, insidious track, with the lyrics half-whispered at moments and a slow bump for a beat. Everything is lost and all that’s really left is false denial and regret; “I define myself by how well I hide,” the speaker says. “I feel it coming apart but at least I tried … If I could take it all back, some way, somehow/If I’d known back then what I know right now.”

“Capital G,” however, arrives with a very different point of view. The speaker is a supporter of both the endless American wars, the decisions that led the planet to ruin and the president who started the descent. “I pushed a button and elected him to office/He pushed a button and he dropped a bomb/You pushed a button and could watch it on the television/Those mother f*ckers didn’t last too long …” The compromise has been made (“traded in my god for this one, he signs his name with a capital G … I used to stand for something, forgot what that could be.”) and the only option available is to grab everything that’s left. Musically, “Capital G” is practically a dance track – it’s not hard to visualize oblivious frat boys and their dates – completely unaware of the lyrics – grinding on the club dance floor.

“My Violent Heart” is again another change in perspective – this time to the “have nots” dismissed by the speaker in “Capital G.” They’re threatening to explode and the music mimics the growing dissent, with an opening rumble swelling into a bellow for the chorus.

“The Warning” takes the story to another level, with a heavy bass line and a tale of either a mass hallucination or a revelation of things to come if people can’t (or won’t) change. “‘It said it was up to us, up to us to decide … ‘you will change your ways and you will make amends, or we’ll wipe this place clean/Your time is tick, tick, ticking away.”

“God Given” is Fox News Christianity taken to its logical extreme, where salvation is only for the “right” people. While “The Warning” contained heavy distorted guitar,” God Given” is again nearly a dance track. There’s a certainly black humor here, as Reznor blasts the self-important religiosity of the radical right: “How hard is it to see/Put your faith in me/I sure wouldn’t want to be/Praying to the wrong piece of wood.”

“Meet Your Master” takes the holier-than-though attitude of “God Given” and transfers it to the military and CIA torture chambers, where “terrorists” are all who don’t conform to the beliefs of the ruling class. The song is bass heavy during the verses with a chaotic chorus and a noise wave that threatens to wash away all in its wake. “Meet Your Master” bleeds immediately into “The Greater Good” a frighteningly minimalist chant about control – both physical control and mind control. It’s Orwellian and technodystopian – a nightmare set to computer noise.

“The Great Destroyer” is half-song, half wail of industrial rage. After the first two choruses, the song devolves into a blast of piercing noise, so shrill it’s hard to listen to all the way through. Fortunately, the “song” quickly gives way to “Another Version of the Truth,” a piano line played over an increasing groan of static until the fuzz subsides and a piano melody, filled with loss and nostalgia for all that’s gone, takes over. It’s a rare moment of beauty in the world of despair Reznor has created.

“In This Twilight” is the approach of the end. The world, with either a whimper of bang, is nearing its stopping place. There’s sadness to be sure, but also a moment of hope (perhaps irrational) that something better will follow when humanity physically ceases to exist.

The final track “Zero Sum” is the best of the disc. A slow, meandering song about the end, as the speaker holds tight to those around him, watching the darkness descend. “I guess I just wanted to tell you/As the light starts to fade/That you are the reason/I am not afraid/And I guess I wanted to mention/As the heavens will fall/We’ll be together soon if we be anything at all.” But the song is also one of loss – lost opportunities, misguided or greedy decisions and numerless failures to act, all of which  led to this moment. “Shame on us … God have mercy on our dirty little hearts.”

“Year Zero” is, musically at least, not “metal” through and through. The “metal” is often interlaced with songs that otherwise have a very unmetal feel (the guitar in “Capital G,” for example, or the obliterating noise of “The Great Destroyer” are very “metal,” I’d say). While not following any metal formula, “Year Zero” is heavy enough stylistically to qualify as metal, and lyrically and musically dense and challenging enough to be required listening.

Essential Albums #8: Ahab, “The Call of the Wretched Sea”

Ahab

Today, I’m going to perform a dubious favor to you: I’m going to recommend an album you’ll have to work to find. 

I don’t listen to much doom metal, but I have great love for Ahab. Those sea-obsessed German doomsters create music that is both achingly beautiful and so heavy that listening to it feels like being crushed fathoms deep against the sea floor by a behemoth great whale. The band’s 2009 release, “The Divinity of Oceans,” is one of my favorite releases of the year. 

But “Divinity” is not Ahab’s best work. Three years ago, the band released a monumental doom epic with the 2006 concept album “The Call of the Wretched Sea.” The album is painfully slow and precise, with enough space for the band to insert unusual melodies and moments of unexpected loveliness . Meanwhile, the band mixes the crushing heaviness with acoustic moments and clean singing that make the songs complete compositions rather than boring, droning, endless riff-fests. 

“Call” is indeed a concept album, based on on Herman Melville’s masterpiece “Moby-Dick.” Perhaps you’re thinking creating a concept album around Melville’s novel is not exactly original – after all Mastodon’s “Leviathan” (which was released in 2004) was also based on “Moby-Dick.” 

Although both bands used the same source material for their inspiration, all resemblance ends at that moment … and anyone crying “copy cat” might first want to hear the albums back to back and compare. “Leviathan” is certainly heavy … but the riffing and melodies are more Iron Maiden than doom metal. Ahab creates a very different vibe: Mastodon’s album feels like chasing the whale. Ahab’s disc feels like being swallowed by the monster. 

Some of the lyrics are taken directly from “Moby-Dick,” which is all very interesting if you want to go back and re-read passages from the novel and compare. But the aura created by the music is more important than the lyrics – and the band captures the premonition of certain doom that Melville weaves throughout the novel. 

“Below The Sun” is a showcase of everything Ahab does right. After a creepy keyboard intro, the song launches with a crushing riff and gutteral vocals from Daniel Droste that seem like they could not have been produced by a human throat. Then, the song shifts up in tempo and switches to clean vocals … only to change again, unleashing a stomping riff and double-bass attack that is powerful and obliterating. The song loops back to the mid section for the finale.  

“The Pacific” is doom, doom and monster doom – heavy and unrelenting throughout. But there’s beauty in the guitar lines – and the acoustic middle section is completely unexpected. The end is a nightmare of chanted grunts over a suprising Middle Eastern guitar line. “The Pacific” is a song that takes on more shades and textures with repeat listens, but it’s worth the effort.  

“Old Thunder” begins with an undistorted melody and a quiet solo. After less than two minutes, however, the song is overwhelmed by a roar of distortion and tempo becomes a slave march. An intertwining guitar line swirls just below the pounding and the clean vocals sound like Gregorian chanting than actual singing. The mid-section reaches for the epic, before the doom stomp resumes and the song circles back round to the original march for the finish. 

“Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales” is an interlude of cold, deep-sea menace and fear. It’s meant to be bleak and horrifying – and it accomplishes its goal quite nicely. It’s also short and turns into the opening of “The Sermon,” arguably the most impressive track on the album. The opening riffs are mountain heavy and the opening growls defy human vocal chords. The main riff, however, is uptempo (or at least as uptempo as any piece in the largo time signature can possibly be) and the guitar lines again ring with hints of Middle Eastern music. The double bass kicks in briefly, turning the song into a charge … before the whole things fades into an intermission that reminds me of the middle section of Iron Maiden’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” After several minutes of ambient music and movie dialogue (from Gregory Peck’s film adaption of “Moby-Dick,” I’m guessing), the stomp resumes, as brutal and relentless as ever – but then shifts back to clean vocals and a seemingly hopeful note. 

“The Hunt” is the album’s bloody, emotional catharsis. The opening riff is creepy, the clean vocals sound like funeral dirges sung by drowned souls and the onslaught of the distortion is devastating. The keyboards give the song a larger-than-life feel – and the end is the sound of blood in the water and unstoppable death. It’s beautiful and full of horror, the sound of a whaling vessel splitting in half after being rammed by a whale. 

“Ahab’s Oath” has a rather psychedelic feel, with keyboards driving the melody and providing texture throughout. Droste’s vocals are bone-chilling, as he (as Ahab) binds his sailors to his fatal quest to kill the white whale. After “The Hunt,” “The Oath” feels more like an epilogue than a climax and ends on the album on a suitably despairing note. 

This is a great album … but as I said at the opening, there’s a catch. Ahab is on Napalm Records – which I’d never heard of before I heard these guys – and their music seems to be somewhat hard to find. I had to special order my copy of “Call of the Wretched Sea” from a local music store. CM Distro carries copies of Ahab’s albums, but they seem to sell out quickly after they’re restocked. In short, good luck.