Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Dungeon Awards for Best Metal Performance of 2017

Sub-heading: 5 albums that I really liked and used a pompous title to get your attention. No awards to be found here. Still better than the Grammies though.

Best of lists have become a real pain in the ass. I've adopted every approach imaginable: Give a list of 20 albums and say nothing else about them. Give a list of 20 albums and talk a lot about them. Talk a little about them. Give a huge fucking list and say nothing. This year I wanted to do the huge fucking list AND say something. About every item on the list.

But then, after contemplating the idiocy of posting a gigantic thing that nobody will read (10 pages and it's still halfway done...), I decided to break things up and do a series of posts about 2017 and music that I liked.

A definite best of 2017 list is not coming. It's too soon. TOO SOON. I am still digesting things from the past EIGHT years for fuck's sake. I spent more time listening to Warfect than Power Trip this year, understand? So, staying true to my futile insistence that it really should be around March of the following year that we talk about the best of the year, I'll now present the 5 albums that have had the honour and privilege to entertain me the most out of any other album released in 2017. You can think of these as the candidates for the Dungeon Awards for best metal performance. Or something.

(link in the title of the album)

Condor - Unstoppable Power

(High Roller Records)

Condor from Norway are part of the Kolbotn Thrashers Union, a circle of bands that includes Nekromantheon and Obliteration but even more telling, they belong in the company of such artistic connoisseurs as Deathhammer, Infernö and Toxik Death, the spawns of Aura Noir and Fenriz's Darkthrone. Thrash/death/speed metal bands, from young peeps who seem to have missed the 90s and 00s and just channel 80s extreme metal through the Fenriz filter of acceptable traits. Not sure if there is an actual place they meet and hang around or anything like that but I always imagine young metalheads hanging by the words of Fenriz and swearing loyalty to the axioms of true metal (death to triggered drums and digital productions and all that). In any case, Condor might just be the youngest of the bunch, formed in 2009, from a couple of 15 year old school kids. Now, aged 26 (I believe), they have matured (meaning they can now grow a true 80s mustache) and honed their vision and have quite possibly released my favorite album of 2017.

If you are aware of the Norwegian names mentioned above (and you should) then you are already aware of what kind of thrash to expect: dirty, fast, rabid, outrageously sung thrash metal that plants both feet firmly in the 80s and has a special fondness for early Destruction, Possessed and the like! Condor gets it and they produce music that doesn't just hit the right nostalgia buttons, they write excellent songs with fantastic riffs and choruses to kill people to. I've spun the shit out of Unstoppable Power and grated my vocal chords trying to emulate Christoffer's addictive way of screaming "YOU ARE EMBRACED BY THE E-VUHL!" (note it's not "evil", it's "evuhl", you may refer to Evil Dead by Death for the proper pronounciation) Props for the absolutely appropriate production. Now, I think it's high time Nekromantheon came forward for 2018...

Antichrist - Sinful Birth

(I Hate)

Fans of Nekromantheon, Deathhammer, Condor and generally, fans of whatever I am praising on the album above (Condor that is) should also pay Antichrist's Sinful Birth a visit. This was up until the last minute the most serious opponent of Condor for the title of album of the year. I guess, when I actually write the actual list we'll all find out together which one it is. But I digress. 

Antichrist came to my attention in 2011 when they released Forbidden World. At the time, there were still few bands doing the dirty heavy/thrash thing with rabid vocals, so the album not only stood out, it quickly became an underground classic. So, it was only reasonable that the expectations were quite high for Sinful Birth and the fact it took them 6 years to release their sophomore effort only added to the anticipation. Let me put it plainly: This album is awesome. Seriously awesome. The mix of rabid thrash, Celtic Frost and Bathory vibes with epic heavy metal (think D666 - Wildfire) is addictive, showcased in great songwriting, great riffs and solos with many unexpected turns. The beginning is kinda monolithic but during the course of the album, after Under the Cross and especially with The Black Pharaoh (one of my favorite songs this year), the surprising twists and turns are more abundant. Think Celtic Frost giving their way to epic heavy metal melodic solos, seamlessly combined as if that is the most natural thing. Again, vocals are one of the highlights of the band and I'll confess Mr. Steken is one of the reasons the band scores high in the cult-o-meter. Outrageously good.

Vulture - The Guilottine

(High Roller Records)

TL;DR: METAL, blah blah, true 80s speed blah blah: Fuck all that: a good tune is a good tune is a good tune. These bastards write fantastic riffs and songs. Not songs that will stick to your brain upon first listen but songs that will slowly make you crave for more and more and more. Fans of 80s heavy metal, speed metal or thrash metal, pay attention.

Vulture gets it. Vulture loves the good metal. And I love Vulture. They have extremely fantastic vocals for my tastes, ie. vocals that SCREAM METAL. Imagine Mille (Pleasure to Kill) and Paul Baloff incorporating Cyriis-type of banshee-cries. I don't know about you but that description alone makes my mouth water. If you follow me, you know that I consider indifferent vocals the plague of modern metal and especially of modern thrash bands, so I always have an ear for the extraordinary. If that extraordinary delivers THE METAL, then I'm sold!

The other great aspect of the band is of course the music and riffs. They combine seamlessly heavy, speed and thrash metal, in equal measures, the key word here being seamlessly. Exodus (BONDED BY BLOOD EXODUS - understand?) and Kreator (up to Terrible Certainty) are the main foundations for their thrashing but it's the heavy and speed elements they throw in the mix (and those vocals) that really make the recipe work.  I love everything about the video as well. It is skating on the edge of the razor between true 80s cringe-worthiness and naivette and "true 80s FUCK YOU - METAL IS ALL" with exemplary comfort and self-sarcasm to the point of falling in love with them. I fell in love with them. I think I fell in love with them the moment they did the choreographed guitar pointing, exactly like Flotsam and Jetsam from that 1985 TV gig (a masterpiece, see 1:20)

Sons of Apollo - Psychotic Symphony

(InsideOut Music)

And now for something completely different:
TL;DR: If you love Dream Theater of the Awake/Falling Into Infinity/Scenes from a Memory era - and you miss them and have not burnt yourself out in the "prog metal" scene of the past 20 years, by all means fucking go for it. This is THE SHIT - and Bumblefoot OWNS YOU (and Petrucci with incredible ease). Most exciting Portnoy release since LTE 2.

LONG RANT I wrote on my facebook:
Long rant follows because I've seen very mixed reactions and I've seen very dismissive reactions, particularly from prog rock/metal fans and mediums.

I have no idea what the problem is. They cite "indifferent songwriting" or "cheesy AOR/hard rock disguised as prog" but, with respect, what.the.fuck.

Scratch that. I am a guy who fell in love with Dream Theater in 1994, became a fanboy for a few years and broke it off in disgust around the Six Degrees album (liked that one but have had my fill years ago) and I was always one of those people who loved them DESPITE their vocals. I never got into the whole prog metal scene that worshipped on their feet (Psychotic Waltz being the only other progressive metal band I could die for). I love the LTE albums. I love Symphony X, Ayreon (had a phase with both of them, nothing excessive though) and the odd album here and there.

What I loved in Dream Theater was that in their peak (which is OBVIOUSLY Awake to me) they had the unique combination of skills, fantasy, passion for playing and "controlled jamming" (I just invented that shit term), a band that you would put the headphones on and know that you count on them to have a music trip with equal admiration for the skill and finesse and the songwriting. Exciting stuff.

I have missed that feeling and urge for almost two decades. Dream Theater and all their clones sounded uninspired (with some exceptions naturally), the cheese became too much (the cheese and The Cheese himself) and Jordan Rudess BORED THE FUCK OUT OF ME. The only thing that really fulfilled my desire for what I speak of in the above paragraph is watching Steve Vai concerts. Seriously.

Enter Portnoy's departure and his gazillion projects. Some good, some boring, never something as exciting as Acid Rain or The Mirror. Still, the man is one of my favorite peeps in the music world cause he is just... interesting when he speaks about music. I think I identify with his knack for writing TL;DR shit. (see?)

And then this project. First time in SO MANY YEARS that I got excited for an upcoming album. Why? Because this time RON FUCKING BUMBLEFOOT THAL would be involved.

I am a HUGE Bumblefoot fan, I am talking his solo albums, not "he knows how to shred and he was cool in GnR". I mean spinning the shit out of 9.11 or Uncool or Normal. The man is seriously one brilliant musician/guitarist/singer and YES ASSHOLES, songwriter! And now he would get to work FINALLY in a band with musicians of his caliber.

So, couple those two cats with Billy Sheehan and his monster tone, enter Derek Sherinian (100 times more exciting than Jordan Rudess) with his A-MA-ZING, vibrant sound and ideas (main composer along with Mike) and put Jeff Scott Soto on top, you get a supergroup that WORKS. ALL the bad reviews dismiss this as "another supergroup that failed the expectations". Well, my expectations were all met and then some. Brilliant songs, brilliant musicianship, brilliant sound production.

So, is there anything wrong here? Why yes! The name of the band. Cheesiest shit ever. Oh, and if you don't like catchy choruses with hooks that belong in hard rock groups like Talisman or perhaps Adrenaline Mob but really, anyone who has spent time listening to James LaBrie has no excuses whatsoever. Dream Theater fanboys who praised albums like the past two DT albums have even less excuses (that's right, they have a negative amount of excuses).

Final word: you can ignore all the above shit and just play God of the Sun and Labyrinth and decide for yourself.

Personally, I played and still play the fuck out of this. And Bumblefoot is THE MAN.

Droid - Terrestrial Mutations

(Nightbreaker Productions)

Droid are Canadians and in my mind they are the true Voivod children, as opposed to Vektor who are very wrongfully dubbed a Voivod clone band. Droid are definitely not Voivod clones either. You will hear a lot of Coroner here and Vektor must have played a part in the overall sound too, or maybe I am too much of a fanboy and hear them everywhere (naah...) but this is just the beginning. Droid are labelled as progressive thrash/speed metal on the Metal Archives but seriously, this does not even begin to cover it. Consider that they cover a lot of ground that Voivod has covered, which if you know Voivod means a LOT. I am not talking just Killing Technology and Dimension Hatross here (which is no small feat in itself), they also have definite 90s references (dare I say grungey?) and a surprisingly catchy way of writing, which makes them intensely interesting.

The 80s, 90s and the 10s somehow meet here in an album that has proven itself over and over the past months. You will hear influences from various other sources of the 90s and a refreshingly open mind for the genre they are serving (again, take that label with a grain of salt). Most of all you will hear catchy songs that I can't shake the thought that they should appeal to both tech-thrashers and fans of late 80s, early 90s alternative bands, while at the same time remaining old school in a warm and fuzzy way. Feels like this is a band that could have been the next hip thing, only thankfully they haven't (yet?).

Kudos to the production values of the album too, organic sounds that serve the music vision well. Looking very much forward to hearing more from this band in the future.

Some thoughts...

This was a very good year for the underground, old-school, speed/heavy/thrash/deathrash metal scene, the one that flourishes around Scandinavia (Norway and Sweden leading the pack). There has been an explosion of releases from that genre and all of them sound at least decent, which is a two-edged sword: on one hand it is nice to see a scene being so alive, on the other hand along with quantity comes the drop in quality (this is an axiom of life) - we are on the verge of hitting that point where even the description of the band's music will bring on the feeling of total indifference. Happened with thrash back in 1990-91, happened with power metal and prog metal around '99 (earlier for some) and has happened again for thrash metal in the 00s before Vektor slapped everyone around and told them to shape up or else. It's certain to happen again with every scene, retro or new and my beloved speed/thrash (dirty or not) scene will be no exception. Not before giving us some real gems though (like every other scene mentioned).

I am glad to present at least 3 releases that not only got the feeling, the vibe of the time, the sheer rabid metal frenziness right (that alone scores a lot of points for me when I hit play), not only that but, and this is the reason to be glad, they also wrote great songs AND have vocals that makes them stand out.

So, congratulations Condor, Antichrist and Vulture, you get my top 3 spots just for that. Hellripper and Evil Invaders are also sure to make my final list, just not sure in what spot exactly. An added bonus to picking the 3 bands for the top spot is that I've had enough of diatribes and long-winded analyses of "the state of metal" by people who love talking about metal more than actually listening to it. I've grown VERY tired of that and honestly wish they would just shut the fuck up already. I think they are on the same level with mainstream publications like pitchfork or Rolling Stone, in the sense of how much stock I put in their opinion. That is, precisely zero. Perfectly sure my top 3 spots will do nothing for them and that is quite the relief. So, if you are looking for the next Gojira in the above list or any other list coming soon, I can tell you right away that this is not the list you are looking for, move along. But you should check out Code Orange (they are in my to-listen-to pile) which made hipster media wet and the one clip I sampled reminded me of Gojira meets Nails meets Pig Destroyer or something like that, so if those names float your boat (and they should, no irony here) check Forever out.

So, as I realize that I sound more and more like a close-minded, bitter, old metalhead, I will close this post here. In the next episode, more name-dropping (Mastodon! Sanctuary! Cannabis Corpse!) and album suggestions. Watch this space. Or don't, I am shit at keeping consistent deadlines. Er, happy new year?

See also:

Best of 2017, Part II: 5+1 albums more
5 albums that could have made the awards. And an album that is better than anything else released this year but doesn't really count.

The best of 2017 - The Whole damn thing!
The full list, descriptions, extras, youtubes!

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