Review: Be’Lakor, “Vessels” (2016)

Be'lakor2012 large 1

Australia’s Be’Lakor does not make great party music. That’s actually a compliment.

Now, I have nothing at all against party music — I have enough classic AC/DC and Aerosmith albums that fall into that category — but, generally, I like music that has a bit more heft to it. I like a song that draws my attention away from whatever I’m doing and forces me to listen.

Be’Lakor have been making music that demands concentration for years, but here in the States, they’ve been an under-the-radar band. Although the band’s excellent 2012 release “Of Breath and Bone” received a rave review from Blabbermouth.net, I’m not sure the album generated much U.S. interest, and the band has never toured the States. When people here think of Australian metal, the names that mostly come to mind are AC/DC — and to a much lesser extent, Portal and Sanzu.

Which is too bad, because Be’Lakor’s latest release “Vessels,” is a great album, full of atmosphere, intricate melodies and power. It’s heavy enough to be death metal, but melodic enough to not grate against my nerves like grind (sorry, grind fans). The band blends both exceeding heaviness with melody and the occasional acoustic interlude in a very appealing way.

I find myself wanting to write, “Be’Lakor make the best Opeth albums Opeth never made,” but that’s neither fair nor accurate. Yes, there are similarities between “Vessels” and older Opeth classics (particularly “My Arms, Your Hearse”), but Be’Lakor are not an Opeth clone. The band is making dark, melodic death metal, sure — but with their own style. Be’Lakor sound like Be’Lakor. They’re performing in the same arena as Opeth, but they’re not attempting to walk in Opeth’s shoes.

With the exception of the 90-second intro, “Luma,” and the three-minute interlude “A Thread Dissolves,” the tracks on “Vessels” are long. The shortest, “Grasping Light,” is just under seven minutes, and “Withering Strands” and “The Smoke of Many Fires” all break the nine-minute mark.

A lot of bands write songs that are long, but the songs are “Vessels” are not lengthy for the sake of length. Instead, the songs are stuffed full of ideas, that are woven together with surprising seamlessness. So many parts shouldn’t fit together so well, but here they do.

The songs seem to rush at moments, before dwindling to soft acoustic spaces. Yes, patience is required, but the band is not deliberately taxing your patience or wasting your time. The tracks are journeys, and the trip is as important as the destination. As someone once told me about a Dimmu Borgir album (which I admittedly didn’t grasp, and still don’t particularly like), “you just have to breathe the songs in.” With “Vessels,” the breathing works.

There’s not a bad track on”Vessels,” although a few stand above the rest — particularly “An Ember’s Arc,” “Whelm,” “Withering Strands” and “The Smoke of Many fires.”

With the band making the move from indie labels to the slightly larger and better financed Napalm Records, I hope Be’Lakor will be able to find a larger following. I hope so. While they’re certainly building on the melodic death metal template, Be’Lakor are strikingly original, and there are mind-blowing moments on almost every track of “Vessels.” There’s definitely an audience for this kind of music — if only the audience can find it.

Highly recommended.

Here’s one you missed: The Great Old Ones “Al Azif”

Today, I’ll be starting a new (hopefully regular) column, where I’ll highlight obscure, underground or just plain weird albums that probably haven’t received the serious listen they deserve. I want to get this new feature off right, so let’s talk about a recent indie weirdie from recent years, 2012’s “Al Azif” by France’s blackened death metal outsiders, The Great Old Ones.

Early 20th Century pulp horror writer H.P. Lovecraft has gone from fringe figure to being a major influence in literature, art, film and music. He died in obscurity, but, today, stories like “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Shadow Out of Time” are considered horror classics — and many of his stories have been turned into feature films.

Now, Lovecraft’s work has popped up on music before — the two most obvious examples are Metallica’s “The Thing That Should Not Be” and “The Call of Ktulu” of course, but Australia’s Portal also seems to have a strong Lovecraft connection. Other bands drop references here and there, and non-signed guitarist Brett Miller released an instrumental album last year entirely of Lovecratian-inspired material.

But The Great Old Ones might be the only signed band for whom Lovecraft’s universe of unimaginable, sanity-ripping monster deities inspire every single one of their songs. The band’s excellent “Tekeli-Li” was a concept album based on the novella “At The Mountains of Madness,” and some special orders of the disc even shipped with a copy of the story.

The_Great_Old_Ones-Al_Azif

“Al Azif,” which came before, is not a concept album exactly, but it each song is based on a Lovecraft story, such as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Music of Erich Zann.” But anyone can take a song and stick a Lovecraft title on it — more than one artist has tried. It’s a lot tougher to craft a song that actually sounds like a Lovecraft story should sound, in all his unimaginable, chaotic, cosmic horror.

I wouldn’t call the Great Old Ones “black metal,” but the band uses some of the conventions of black metal throughout “Al Azif.” But there’s more melody here than in, say, your traditional Mayhem or Emperor classic, and the songs often switch from black metal to melodic passages more reminiscent of Opeth than  Burzum.

The songs, for lack of a better term, sound vast. The band is not interested — and does not attempt — to shred. No one band member stands out, and even the vocals blend into the mix instead of taking center stage. The melodies are big — yet also off-kilter and off-key.  There’s certainly a beauty here, particularly on songs like “Visions of R’lyeh” and the  “Rue D’auseil,”but it’s an odd beauty, like green clouds in a maelstrom. The album has the feeling of being wind swept, or ocean tossed.

 

Since the band is so devoted to themes and concepts of Lovecraft, it’s fair to ask: Can people not familiar with Lovecraft’s work find value in “Al Azif?” I can’t answer for certain — I ran into Lovecraft’s work when I was 14 and have been a fan of what is generally called “The Cthulhu Mythos” ever since.

(Side Note: Yes, I’m familiar with Lovecraft’s racism — how could I not be, considering some of the more shocking descriptions of African-Americans and other racial groups, particularly in stories like “Herbert West: Re-Animator”? I’d say people can still find value in Lovecraft, while certainly acknowledging and being distressed by his examples of racism. I’d also say you can find an excellent rebuttal or reexamination of Lovecraft’s racial views in Victor LaValle’s recent novella, “The Ballad of Black Tom,” which revisits Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” through the perspective of a African-American musician/hustler who gets caught up in the chaos of the original story).

But I digress. I think overall, a person doesn’t have to appreciate Lovecraft works, or even know them, to enjoy the atmospherics and the bludgeoning metal — of “Al Azif.” The album stands solidly on its own — it’s dark and doomy, with a hint of the progressive and more than a bit of groove. It has a heavy vibe that I enjoy, whether I’m reading “The Colour Out of Space” for the 20th time, or washing my car. (Who am I kidding? I never wash my car…)

The band signed to Season of Mist earlier this year, and were scheduled to begin recording their third album in May. I’m looking foward to hearing where the band goes next.

Interview: Testament’s Chuck Billy is ready for fans to join “The Brotherhood of the Snake”

testament2014-sdg01-sm

Although the members of thrash legends Testament began writing songs for their newest burst of power, “The Brotherhood of the Snake” seemingly ages ago, actually getting the band into the studio to record the album proved to be a challenge.

“We’ve been working on this record for a year and a half,” vocalist/lyricist Chuck Billy said during an interview in early August. “In the middle of the writing process, we had two tour offers (that delayed the project). It was a long process to get the record done.”

Testament are one of the Bay Area thrash bands that rightfully get mentioned in the same breath with Metallica, Megadeth and Slayer. The band released several solid thrash mini-classics like “The Legacy,” “The New Order” and “Practice What You Preach” in the ’80s and early ’90s — but the band achieved brilliance with “The Formation of Damnation” in 2008 and again in 2012 with the searing “Dark Roots of Earth”.

A band that releases an album once every four years would seem to have plenty of time to hone songs to perfection. But Testament’s busy touring schedule kept them even from finishing some of the songs destined for “Brotherhood of the Snake” before the band entered the studio earlier this year, Billy said.

“There was a lot of emotion, and anger, to get (the album) done,” Billy said.

Call it grace under pressure, then, because instead of being dissatisfied, Billy said the final tracks for “Brotherhood” are the best of the band’s career.

“The frustration and all the (pressure) to get it done came out in the music, and it really made the songs stand out,” Billy said. “I believe the songwriting on this record is beyond what we’ve done. ”

Going into it, we had heard some of the demo songs … but didn’t have a vision of the final record,” Billy said. When the band heard the final mixes for the disc, “we were saying, ‘holy sh*t, these are some good songs … I would say, in my opinion, it tops the catalog.”

Lyrically, the title track deals with religion and power, and was inspired by a creation story that hypothesizes humans were initially molded not as pure images of goodness, but as crude slave labor for an alien race that wanted to mine the earth’s gold.

But, as the story goes, humanity escaped that fate. Like Prometheus with the gift of fire, a sympathetic alien informed humans of their origins, and that they have spirits that reincarnate after death — a revelation that caused the humans to revolt.

“”It’s all about pure political power,” Billy said of the title track.

But other songs are firmly rooted in the present, taking on topics such as the legalization of marijuana, Billy said. And while the band addressed the 2001 terrorist attacks on “Formation of Damnation” with “The Evil Has Landed,” the band closes the loop on “Brotherhood” with “Neptune Spear,” a story about the Seal Team Six raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

“Some of the songs I’d written in 2014, and a lot of the songs went through four rewrites,” Billy said. Some of the lyrics were still being reviews “until I went into the studio,” he said.

While Billy is pleased with the end result, “I don’t ever want to do it that way again,” he said.

With “Brotherhood” scheduled to get the streets in late October, the band is preparing to play a number of European dates just prior to the release, before coming back to the states for a U.S. tour.

“I’d say, right now, Testament is a fine-tuned machine,” Billy said. Over the years, the band members have learned how to tour in a way that doesn’t leave them worn-out wrecks, which shows in the power of their live shows, Billy said.

“If you’re not comfortable, it comes across in your performance,” Billy said. Now, the band works to take care of themselves on the road.

“When you’re feeling good, it definitely helps your show,” Billy said.

Testament’s “Brotherhood of the Snake” is scheduled for release on Oct. 28

 

Attorney for officer in Exodus song lyrics case seeks suit dismissal

An attorney representing the Muhlenberg County police officer and Muhlenberg County, who are being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union, has filed papers in U.S. District Court, asking that the lawsuit be dismissed.

In response, ACLU attorneys who sued on behalf of Muhlenberg County resident James Evans restated their argument that Officer Michael Drake filed a probable cause affidavit against Evans, while making “materially false statements” that led to Evans’s arrest on a charge of felony terroristic threatening.

 Evans was arrested on Aug. 26 and held in jail for eight days, after officers from several law enforcement agencies began investigating a post Evans placed on his Facebook page Aug. 24. The post contained lyrics from the song “Class Dismissed: A Hate Primer” by the metal band Exodus. The lyrics are about school shootings and are written from the perspective a student committing a mass shooting.

The lyrics posted by Evans included: “Student bodies lying dead in the halls/A blood splattered treatise of hate/Class dismissed is my hypothesis/Gun fire ends the debate … My hate primer’s the result of my rejection/You’ll die for it, and I’ll die for thee.”

The lyrics were posted without attribution to the band or the song title. The ACLU complaint says officers from several agencies began investigating on Aug. 24, and at least some investigators determined the post contained song lyrics, and that Evans had posted lyrics in the past without attributing the lyrics to the song or songwriter.

Evans was interviewed by Central City police, who did not file any charges against him. Drake, who is a school resource officer for the Muhlenberg County Police Department, filed his affidavit after Central City police conducted their interview; the affidavit says Evans “committed the offense of Terroristic Threatening, to wit: by threatening to kill students or staff at school.”

The charge against Evans was eventually dismissed. The ACLU complaint says Evans suffered malicious prosecution and suffered “a deprivation of his liberty” when he was jailed for eight days.

In his motion to dismiss, Justin Schaefer, of the Louisville law firm of Schiller, Osbourn, Barnes & Maloney, says while it’s true Evans had posted lyrics before Aug. 24, “none of those prior lyrics had the threatening tone and pure vitriol that fervently clung to (Evans’) August 2014 post.

“As such, (Drake’s) concerns about (Evans’) intentions were reasonably aroused,” Schaefer writes in his motion. The motion says Drake reviewed Evans’ “criminal history,” which “included prior charges of terroristic threatening, menacing” and other charges not related to threats.

“Given these facts, and the very loose investigations conducted by some other investigating agencies, Mike Drake believed (Evans) had, in fact, intended his post to be a true threat,” Schaefer writes, and Drake “submitted his findings” to county attorney Darris Russel, “who agreed with Drake and asked Drake to sign an Affidavit/Criminal Complaint against” Evans.

Schaefer argues Drake receives “qualified immunity,” which means he can’t be sued for his conduct “under the color of the law, as long as that conduct does not violate clearly established rights of which a reasonable person in their position would have known.” Whether an official receives qualified immunity depends upon the “objective legal reasonableness” of their actions,” given the laws that were in place at the time.

“Here, Mike Drake had probable cause to seek out a warrant for (Evans’) arrest and prosecution for terroristic threatening,” Schaefer writes.

Drake did not specify which degree of terroristic threatening he was seeking on his affidavit, but the arrest warrant issued by District Court was for first-degree terroristic threatening, Schaefer’s motion says. State law says that to qualify as first-degree terroristic threatening, a threat must include a false statement that a person “has placed a weapon of mass destruction” on public property or school property. A person who places a simulated weapon of mass destruction can also be charged with first-degree terroristic threatening.

Schaefer argues a charge for a criminal offense “may include with it all lesser included charges,” such as the lesser charges of second- or third-degree terroristic threatening. Evans’ Facebook post qualified as third-degree terroristic threatening, Schaefer writes, which state law defines as threatening “to commit any crime likely to result in death or serious physical injury to another person, or likely to result in substantial property damage” or when a person “intentionally makes false statements for the purpose of causing evacuation of a building” or other public place.

“Thus, given that any threat to commit any crime likely to result in death or serious physical injury to another person (qualifies as) terroristic threatening in the third-degree under Kentucky law, Drake had probable cause to believe (Evans) committed such an offense,” Schaefer writes.

“(Evans) stresses that his post consisted only of song lyrics from the heavy metal band Exodus. Does that somehow make his particular post less threatening?” Schaefer writes. “… Surely, one can adopt the words of another as his own and use those same words to threaten others … His post plainly reads as a threat to kill students at a school.”

Schaefer also writes Evans’ complaint against Muhlenberg County should also be dismissed, because even if Evans’s allegations are true, “a plaintiff must show that the incident resulted from an existing, unconstitutional (government) policy.” The charges against Evans were “nothing more than an isolated incident, which involved individual deliberation and discretion of one Muhlenberg County official,” Schaefer writes.

In their response, ACLU attorneys William Sharp and Brenda Popplewell write Drake should not receive qualified immunity because he “made false statements or omissions in his affidavit … that, had it been included, would have established the absence of probable cause to arrest” Evans.

The ACLU attorneys write Drakes affidavit didn’t include several facts, such as that the post was song lyrics, that the “threat” was a Facebook post, that Evans had been interviewed by police and cooperated with investigators, and that Evans did not have any connection with county schools.

At the time the affidavit was submitted, Drake “knew that (Evans’) post consisted of song lyrics … and that (Evans) had previously used Facebook to post other song lyrics,” the ACLU attorneys write. “Drake also knew … (Evans) denied intending to make any threat by posting the lyrics online (and) knew (Evans) did not work at any school, nor did he have any apparent motive to threaten students or school officials.

“Here, the knowledge Drake learned from the multiagency investigation was sufficient to confirm that (Evans’) Facebook post was nonthreatening,” the ACLU attorneys write. The attorneys also rejected the argument that Muhlenberg County should be dismissed from the suit, saying the complaint contains enough that the courts can “draw a reasonable inference” that the county is liable for Drake’s “constitutional violations under a single act theory.”

Schaefer filed a brief reply to the ACLU response, again claiming the Facebook post fit the state’s definition of third-degree terroristic threatening.

The posting was made “for everyone to see” and the “alarm it caused the public resulted in a police investigation,” Schaefer writes. “That investigation confirmed the (Evans) had, in fact, made the threatening post of his own free will and volition.

Schaefer reply says Evans has not shown his constitutional rights were violated, or that Drake “knowingly or recklessly violated those rights.”

“Instead, they show that Drake made a tough call in a dynamic situation, based on public protection concerns,” Schaefer writes. “Consequently, even if that decision violated (Evans’) constitutional rights, it should not eviscerate the immunity Drake enjoys from suit under clearly established federal law.”

No hearings are currently scheduled in the case.

James Mayse, (270) 691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

ACLU files civil suit on behalf of man who was jailed after posting EXODUS song lyrics on Facebook

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a Muhlenberg County man who was jailed for eight days last year after song lyrics he posted on his Facebook page prompted law enforcement to charge him with felony terroristic threatening.

On Monday, the ACLU filed papers in U.S. District Court on behalf of James E. Evans, who was charged with first-degree terroristic threatening in August after Evans posted some of the lyrics to the song “Class Dismissed (A Hate Primer)” from the band Exodus on his Facebook page.

The complaint names as defendants both Muhlenberg County and Muhlenberg County Police Department Officer Michael Drake, who filed the probable cause affidavit against Evans. The complaint says Drake allegedly “knowingly and intentionally made a material misstatement of fact” when preparing the affidavit that led to Evans’ arrest.

The complaint also says Drake allegedly “knowingly and intentionally omitted relevant and material information from his affidavit that, had it been included, would have established that probable cause did not exist to arrest (Evans) for any alleged criminal wrongdoing.”

The complaint says Evans, who was not a student or involved with the schools, posted the lyrics on his Facebook page on Aug. 24.

The lyrics Evans posted contained the lines: “Student bodies lying dead in the halls/A blood splattered treatise of hate/Class dismissed is my hypothesis/Gun fire ends the debate/All I ever wanted was a little affection/But no one ever gave it to me/My hate primer’s the result of my rejection/You’ll die for it, and I’ll die for thee.”

At the time the song was released, the band described the song in interviews as being about the incidents such as mass shootings at Virginia Tech and Columbine High School. After Evans was arrested, band songwriter Gary Holt said the song “in no way endorses” school violence, and the song “was written through the eyes of a madman.” In a statement, the band expressed their support for Evans.

The complaint says Evans had posted song lyrics on his Facebook page before. The complaint says law enforcement officials from several agencies became aware of the posting on Aug. 24, and a trooper for the Kentucky State Police and the chief of the Greenville Police Department identified the posting as song lyrics that day.

The complaint says Evans was interviewed at his home by Central City police officers, but the officers did not arrest or charge Evans with an offense. The interview, which was recorded, includes one of the officers telling Evans, “‘I’m not trying to tell you what to do. You have the right to freedom of speech. I’m not trying to infringe on that.'” Evans’ wife told officers Evans does not possess any weapons, the complaint says.

Drake filed his probable cause affidavit on Aug. 24; the complaint cites Drake’s affidavit, which says Evans “committed the offense of Terroristic Threatening, to wit: by threatening to kill students and or staff at school.”

The complaint says Drake, “did not provide any details about the alleged crime,” such as “specific language used to communicate” the threat, whether “the alleged threat specified a specific school, building, vehicle or event,” whether “the alleged threat included a threat to use a weapon of mass destruction” or “the manner in which the alleged threat was communicated.”

State law says, to qualify as first-degree terroristic threatening, a threat must include a false statement that a person “has placed a weapon of mass destruction” on public property or school property. A person who places a simulated weapon of mass destruction can also be charged with first-degree terroristic threatening.

First-degree terroristic threating is a class C felony, punishable upon conviction by between five and 10 years in prison. The complaint says Evans was arrested on the charge Aug. 26 and was held in jail for eight days. The charge was later dismissed.

The complaint claims Drake sought an arrest warrant against Evans although “the facts and circumstances were insufficient to establish probable cause to believe (Evans) had committed a criminal offense.” The complaint claims Evans suffered from malicious prosecution, and “suffered a deprivation of his liberty” by being incarcerated and being put through the court process.

The lawsuit seeks damages, “including punitive damages” and attorney fees, as well as “any and all other relief to which (Evans) may be entitled.”

Drake said Tuesday he was aware of the suit, but had not yet seen it.

“I can’t really talk about it right now,” Drake said. An attorney sent a story about the lawsuit from a website about heavy metal music to Drake, but, “I haven’t been served with it yet,” he said.

No hearings on the suit have yet been scheduled.

James Mayse, (270) 691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: JamesMayse

Babymetal is good for metal

babymetal

The metal world — or at least the metal blogosphere — has been pretty shaken up lately by Japan’s latest metal eruption, Babymetal.

A mishmash of metal and schoolgirl pop, Babymetal is one of the those crazy ideas that could only have originated in Japan. Now, Japanese metal has long been strange, as anyone who has seen or heard X Japan can attest, but Babymetal takes the weird to new heights.

Fronted by three teen girls who range in age from 14 to 16 (and look much younger), Babymetal combines Slipknot style instrumental brutality with a pop sweetness and wholesomeness that causes some metal fans to rip out their beards. Instead of blood, fire and death, Babymetal’s three singers/dancers sing about bullying, being happy and, yes, chocolate.

The band has sold out the few shows they’ve played in the U.S., have been praised by Lady GaGa and have been treated like royalty at major metal fests by bands like Slayer, Metallica and Anthrax. But for every fan of the band, there’s another foe on the metal webs, ready to accuse Babymetal fans of being poseurs or pedophiles.

Just how bizarre is Babymetal? Maybe you just have to see it for yourself.

So, is Babymetal bad for metal? Is it “true metal,” or is it a bad parody at best, or a abomination and practical joke at metal’s expense at worst?

Frankly, Babymetal is probably the best thing that’s happened to metal this century, at least in terms of breaking boundaries and growing metal’s audience.

Despite protestations to the contrary, metal is a boy’s club. Sure, there are women in metal bands, and women who are metal fans, but the culture that still rules the scene is sexist and full of macho bullsh*t.

You don’t have to look hard to find examples, but here are a couple just off-hand. Exhibit A: “Porn Star Dancing,” by My Darkest Days. Let’s put aside the fact that the song is musically terrible (how much did Zach Wilde drink before cashing his check and widdling his way through that “guest” solo?) and look at what the song is about. That’s right, it’s about a douchebag who can’t understand why girls don’t like him (hint: he’s a douchebag), so he spends his days at the strip bar. “I know a place where there’s always a show/the dollars decide how far you can go,” the singer, whoever he is, warblers in all his epic douchebaggery. So, essentially, we have a song that objectifies woman and portrays them as prostitutes. Well, that’s what I want my daughter listening to, don’t you?

Exhibit B: The Pretty Reckless. Musically, this is a band where the sum never adds up to the musical parts. It seems everyone in the band is talented, but the end result is always less-than interesting. But again, let’s put the music aside and look at how the band’s lead singer, Taylor Momsen, is portrayed.

As you might expect from a former teen model and “Gossip Girl” star, TPR’s videos are full of shot’s of Momsen wearing scanty clothes and posing seductively for the camera. Sex sells CDs as much as it sells beer and everything else, but I’m not sure there’s much in TPR’s image for teen girls. “Look pretty and the boys will like you” is a message girls get from every other aspect of pop culture. Force-feeding it to them yet again in metal (which is allegedly an escape from pop culture) seems demeaning.

Enter Babymetal, who are both musically adept and not-at-all sexualized. Even Babymetal haters have to agree the band is musically first-rate — and anyone who says lead singer Suzuka Nakamoto (aka Su-Metal) can’t sing are simply being dismissive for hate’s sake. There’s some real talent here — and I’d argue a genre that invented death metal can’t really complain about a singer’s vocals (disclaimer: I also love death metal).

While Babymetal may seem like “metal for kids” or, perhaps “metal for teen girls,” neither of those things are at all bad. Metal needs new fans, and more women fans, if the genre is going to avoid stagnation. The generation of kids gravitating to Babymetal today will be taking that influence making their own brand of metal tomorrow. If you want metal to stay exactly the same, you’re just like a classical music fan who hates modern classical and only listens to Mozart.

Also, the sexist attitudes of metal (foisted upon us, perhaps, by the hair metal bands in the 1980s before the stereotypes took on lives of their own) are outdated and degrading to everyone involved. Metal isn’t a boy’s club anymore, and needs to start accepting that women at shows are not just groupies or girls dragged there by their boyfriends.

There need to be strong women in metal, especially for young girls, who are hypersexualized and bombarded with negative images pretty much from puberty on. Babymetal, by putting absolutely no emphasis on sex, gives girls a cool, tough and yet sweet set of metal icons.

We, the metal community, needed Babymetal. Thank god they finally arrived. May others — equally fearless, empowering and innovative — follow in their wake.

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.