Thursday, September 25, 2008


[From Westword.]

Year after year, Unleashed unsheaths steady Swedish metal

Unleashed bassist/vocalist Johnny Hedlund is a cheerful, friendly guy who happens to play in one of the most ferocious and consistently powerful death-metal bands ever to emerge from Sweden. Since 1991, the act has released nine studio albums full of pummeling drums, grinding guitar riffs and lyrics that excoriate Christianity and extol Viking mythology. Perhaps even more impressive, the group has done it with only one lineup change: In 1996, guitarist Fredrik Lindgren was replaced by Fredrik Folkare. "They look very much alike," says Hedlund with a laugh. "So to be honest with you, a lot of people don't really know we did switch."

Like Motörhead or Slayer, Unleashed just keeps doing its thing. Hedlund makes sure the outfit never sinks into a rut of playing to its existing fan base, though; he's always conscious that this year could be someone's first encounter with his music. "You've gotta make the music and lyrics as if this was the first year of the band's existence," he says. "Of course you don't want to lose the roots, you don't want to lose everything you've done in the past, but you've gotta be on the edge all the time. You've gotta be very energetic all the time. And that's a very inspiring thought." Indeed, the band's latest release, Hammer Battalion, seethes with a raw power and disciplined attack that makes younger acts look like chumps. Commonly cited as the fathers of Viking metal, Unleashed hold onto its throne with furious, anthemic songs like "Entering the Hall of the Slain" and "Warriors of Midgard."

For his part, Hedlund has nothing but respect and affection for those who've come after him. In his view, the recent popularity of Scandinavian folk metal and Viking-themed lyrics (see last year's Paganfest tour) are undeniably good things. "I think it's really nice to see all those different directions — folk and all kinds of styles," he declares. "We headlined a festival called Ragnarok in Germany in the spring, and it was like 5,000 people there for a Viking festival. Folk metal, Viking metal, death metal, all kinds of metal, but it was Viking. It was pretty amazing. And so it's really exploded. You could see the buttons and badges on the fans there — the same people had a [folk band] badge, and they'd have an Unleashed badge on top of it."

Despite the group's veteran status, Hedlund feels like Unleashed's glory days are in the present. "I think our tours are more fun than they have ever been, and writing music and lyrics has never been more fun than it is right now," he enthuses. "If you stop having fun, then you should just go home. It's better to stay home and do something different. Anybody that will come to our show in the United States, in any city — if Unleashed has a good time on stage, they will feel it. And the minute we play a show and it doesn't look like we're having a good time, I will definitely take full responsibility and go home."

Monday, September 22, 2008


House Of Return
When attempting to get an indie avant-jazz band recorded, it helps if you own the label. But Jeff Gauthier's goatette could stand on its own even if Cryptogramophone weren't his imprint. The violinist's group features pleasingly omnipresent guitarist Nels Cline and his drummer brother, Alex, alongside bassist Joel Hamilton and keyboardist David Witham.

The gentle, soothing opener, "Biko's Blues," predicts a relaxing trip drifting downriver. But the second track, "Friends Of The Animals," quickly demonstrates why Gautier, Witham and Nels Cline are all credited with "effects," as the ensemble transforms into an unholy, heart-pounding amalgam of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report and Sonic Youth. Cline's distorted guitar lines meld with Gauthier's electrified violin and liquid organ lines from Witham, while Alex Cline's home-run swing drives it all.

Unfortunately, "I.O.A.," "House Of Return," and "Dizang" follow and taken together, create a pastoral atmosphere that lingers for the next half hour. But eventually, the album regains momentum with "Satellites And Sideburns," so named because it sounds like a combination of '70s Miles - Gauthier's violin imitates a wah-wah trumpet quite well - and instrumental Frank Zappa. Finally, a drum solo by Alex Cline concludes the album with something between an avalanche and a demolition derby. Members of the Goatette wore their influences like merit badges while producing this highly rewarding work.


The Marcin Wasilewski Trio's Polish jazz invades America
[From Jazziz.]

Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski and his partners - bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz - make up one of the most interesting trios on the ECM label at the moment. Originally known as the Simple Acoustic Trio, they're now named after the pianist - for reasons of convenience.

"It was the suggestion of the producer [and ECM label head] Manfred Eicher, to put my name as the band name, but nothing changed really between us," Wasilewski says. January is the group's second ECM release, following five hard-to-find, Poland-only discs and 2005's label debut, Trio. Devoted fans of Polish jazz, though, will know these three musicians quite well: They've backed trumpeter Tomasz Stanko since 2002, appearing on The Soul Of Things, Suspended Night and Lontano.

Stanko's influence weighs heavily on the band, although the lessons the've learned from him assisted in developing their own group identity. "We played many, many years together, so Stanko was very important for us, and still is, as a great artist and a great musician," Wasilewski says. "We had the opportunity to play a lot with him onstage, practicing by playing concerts, of course, which is the best and fastest way to be a better musician. It's almost the same but not the same, the music [we made] with him and as our own band. Of course, we use the same ways of improvising that we learned with him, but there's no trumpet and there's no Tomasz Stanko music."

The quality Wasilewski and company share most strongly with their former boss is a meditative, almost somnambulistic approach to melody and rhythm. Their compositions drift slowly along, building like mist rising off the ground at midnight. The difference between European jazz and American jazz has been discussed at length in many venues, but January is a particularly crisp example, making melodic improvisation rather than muscular swing the point of the exercise. Does Wasilewsky think there's a fundamentally different approach to the question of swing in Europe?

"I think there is, but I don't know if it's good or bad," he says. "It doesn't matter, because now jazz is very international. Of course, it started being played in the States, it's original American music, but it's a mix of European culture - and European instruments, of course. There are some differences, of course, in the rhythmic approach, especially by black musicians. They're more focused on playing rhythm, which is very important when you play jazz. But at the same time, jazz is not only rhythm, so European players put a little bit of rubato tempo and more connection with classical roots and classical music. So I think it gives us a lot of interesting mixtures to connect to things."

Despite their somewhat restrained, archetypally European (not to say archetypally ECM) approach to jazz, the trio has a few surprises up their sleeves. One of the biggest is their version of Prince's "Diamonds And Pearls," which undergoes a thorough and revelatory transformation on January.

Why Prince? "It was a very spontaneous thing," Wasilewski says. "A couple of days before I left to record in New York, I bought the CD Diamonds And Pearls, thinking, 'Yeah, I remember this from the past.' So I put it on a tape recorder, and I was so excited to listen to this. I was dancing, packing my stuff, preparing some music notes, and I thought, 'Oh, maybe I'll play this melody.' I asked my sister, and she said to just learn the simple main melody. I added some chords, and on the second day of session, I said to Slawomir, 'Let's hear this song "Diamonds And Pearls,"' and Manfred asked, 'Do you have something else you want to do?' So we got it on the second take. We did the main theme, 'Okay, let's play solo on this chorus,' and it was done on the second take."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


In case you missed my thrilling appearance on WNYC radio today, debating Pitchfork Media's Ryan Schreiber on the merits of Metallica's Death Magnetic, you can download an MP3 of the segment here.


I recently got a record in the mail by a UK band named Blood Ceremony. It’s not terrible; it kinda sounds like the first Black Sabbath album, with a little bit of Uriah Heep organ and some Jethro Tull flute-tooting. The lyrics are all about Satanic rituals and the occult, and the achingly retro sound would make Witchcraft drool with envy. The band has one major weak point, though: the vocalist. She’s flat and tuneless, moaning like she’d been put into a trance by some dark priest right before the producer pressed ‘Record.’ This drove me away from the album, and sent me on a quest to hear the bands from which Blood Ceremony had quite clearly hijacked all their ideas. Not just Sabbath, Heep and Tull – I have plenty by the former two in my iPod already, and haven’t felt the need to hear Ian Anderson et al. since junior high. No, I decided it was time I finally heard Coven and Black Widow.

Coven had two different types of fame. On the one hand, they had a hit single from their second album – 1972’s “One Tin Soldier,” which appeared on the soundtrack to the movie Billy Jack and still crops up on compilations like Freedom Rock and the like. But three years earlier, they achieved an underground notoriety (which persists to this day) with their debut disc, 1969’s Witchcraft Destroys Minds And Reaps Souls. The cover art, which depicts three of the four bandmembers staring zombie-eyed at the potential purchaser, makes it look like some kind of dark Satanic epic. The gatefold features a shot of the lead vocalist, a hot-ish blonde woman named Jinx Dawson, stretched naked on an altar with a skull between her legs as the other members gather around for what one assumes is a Black Mass. And sure enough, the last track on this album, “Satanic Mass,” is a 13-minutes-plus recording of a ceremony – lots of chanting and dramatic recitations rather than, you know, a song. It kinda reminds me of one of those Halloween sound effects albums they used to sell when I was a kid, with the wind blowing through the haunted house and ghostly moans and the rest.

On their actual songs, Coven are far from a proto-metal band; the Stooges and Blue Cheer were much heavier than this. The music is almost jazzy prog-psychedelia with loads of organ, drum breaks DJ Shadow would probably sample, and the occasional Cream-y guitar solo. Plus Jinx Dawson’s vocals, which are somewhere between Janis Joplin and Grace Slick without the power of either. So the album basically exists as an artifact with a few weird bits of trivia attached to it (the first song is called “Black Sabbath,” and the band’s bassist was named Oz Osborne). Don’t bother.

Black Widow, on the other hand, are pretty solid stuff. Like Black Sabbath, they arose out of the English blues-rock scene, and their debut album, 1970’s Sacrifice, was loaded with track titles like “Come To The Sabbat,” “Conjuration,” “Attack Of The Demon,” and their album-closing epic, the 11-minute title track. I like these guys better than Coven by a long stretch. With their swirling organ and saxophones, they remind me of a cross between Atomic Rooster and Uriah Heep or Procol Harum, throwing in touches of jazz and folk here and there. They’re not heavy in the metal sense, but you can definitely hear them doing something interesting within the basic post ’60s rock format. If you’re as big a fan of late ’60s/early ’70s rock as I am (I believe rock music had its period of greatest creativity between 1969 and 1975), Black Widow’s Sacrifice is worth checking out.

Monday, September 15, 2008


I'll be on WNYC radio tomorrow at 2PM EST, debating the merits of Death Magnetic with Pitchfork Media's Ryan Schreiber. (I kinda wish it was a debate with Cosmo Lee, who actually wrote Pitchfork's review, a review I think I could have predicted, content- and verdict-wise, as soon as I read this Invisible Oranges post, but oh well.) In any case, if you're in the New York area, you can listen at 93.9 FM, and if you're not, you can check it out online at

Thursday, September 11, 2008


[From Westword.]

Death Magnetic
Warner Bros.

This is exactly the record Metallica needed to make in 2008. Real metal's back, and sure, younger bands have rage and technical aptitude on their side, but Metallica's riffs can level skyscrapers. Opening trilogy "That Was Just Your Life," "The End of the Line" and "Broken, Beat & Scarred" combines furious classic-years thrash with the hard-rock stomp of Load and ReLoad, showcasing savage Kirk Hammett solos, surprisingly disciplined vocals (James Hetfield's no longer deliberately going off-key, as he did on St. Anger) — and, hey! — Lars Ulrich's drums sound like drums again! Some songs are eight minutes long when five would have done the job, and "The Unforgiven III" breaks the flow with piano and strings, but overall, Death Magnetic is a ferocious return to form.


[From the Cleveland Free Times.]

Alex Skolnick Trio
Wilberts (812 Huron Rd. E., Cleveland, OH)
Now that skunk-striped shredder Alex Skolnick is back with Testament, the Bay Area thrash band that brought him to worldwide fame, he might not have as much time for this project. That'd be a shame. The Alex Skolnick Trio is an instrumental outfit, but calling it "jazz" would do its innovative and unique sound a disservice. Not only does the guitarist nod to his other career on the Trio's latest album, Last Day In Paradise (it reworks Testament's "Practice What You Preach" and Rush's "Tom Sawyer"), but on tracks like "Western Sabbath Stomp" and "Mercury Retrograde," he proves himself a master of tone and technique, easily the equal of Bill Frisell or any other post-jazz six-stringer. His bandmates, bassist Nathan Peck and drummer Matt Zebroski, are no slouches either, expertly switching up rhythms and grooves to keep listeners guessing and rocking at the same time. You might be drawn in by the novel prospect of seeing a metal hero play "jazzy" versions of "Iron Man," "Detroit Rock City," "Don't Talk to Strangers," et al., but by the end of the set (or one of the three CDs), it'll be the originals - and the Trio's overall originality - that earn your respect.


[From the SF Weekly.]

Knowle West Boy
After the seething, explosive brilliance of Tricky's first two albums, 1995's Maxinquaye and 1996's Pre-Millennium Tension, inspiration is spreading thin. Later releases Angels With Dirty Faces, Juxtapose, and Blowback contained a recommended song or two, but as albums they were jumbled failures.

Knowle West Boy doesn't break that disappointing pattern. "Council Estate" and "Coalition" crank up the guitars and the yelling, and almost rock – but in the end they're barely convincing. And those are the standout tracks. For the most part, this disc is just more latter-day Tricky, the claustrophobic and compelling paranoia of his early days toned down to a grumpy mutter as the music jumps among styles (barrelhouse piano and blues riffs on the opening "Puppy Toy"; postpunk guitar noise, bass throb, and one-finger synth lines on "Far Away"). Like most other post-hip-hop producer-artists, Tricky occasionally forgets that a beat is not a song, as on "Veronika," which features the titular girl singing, halfway to herself, like a young, more human Grace Jones. This Veronika (last name Coassolo, formerly of Disco Inferno and ToyTunes) is just one of many guest players here, making Tricky seem like an interloper on his own album.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


Because of a two-month or so lead time, it's soon going to be incumbent upon me to prepare my year-end Top 20 list for Metal Edge. This is probably the easiest of the multiple lists I'm gonna wind up putting together (Village Voice,, The Wire), because it's limited to a single genre. So this morning I took the first step, going into my iPod and looking at all the metal albums from 2008 stored therein. This isn't everything I heard; it's everything that impressed me enough to stick around. I've got just under 90 albums from which I need to pull 20 keepers. I've got a pretty good idea what's gonna be my Album of the Year (hint: it leaked to the Internet one week ago today, it hits stores on Friday, and it's by Metallica), but the other 19 slots are uncertain. Definite contenders: Opeth, Amon Amarth, Burst, and several bands not from Sweden, including a surprise dark horse: Stephen Pearcy. Seriously, don't sleep on Under My Skin; it's a bare-bones hard rock record that plays to his strengths. In a generally lackluster year, you could do worse than that.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008


So Death Magnetic leaked last night, to no one’s great surprise. The narrative being pushed is that a French record store got copies early and began selling them, and now it’s out on the net courtesy of some customer. I don’t think that’s what happened at all. I think, as is so often the case, it was leaked by someone on the inside. But however it happened, the music’s out there, and now it’s time for everyone to have their say.

I think Metallica’s in a tough spot with this album. A lot of people these days seem to hate them, or at least get off on abusing them online. They get ridiculed for obvious missteps like Some Kind Of Monster as brutally as for totally extramusical “offenses” like the photo of James Hetfield, Rob Trujillo and their wives or girlfriends or whoever out shopping in shorts and sandals. And I think it’s time motherfuckers backed off a little. Fine; Load and ReLoad were not good albums, and S&M was an interesting idea, less than brilliantly executed. But you know what? I’ve spent a fair amount of time listening to St. Anger over the past couple of months, sort of psyching myself up/steeling myself to the reality of Death Magnetic, and it’s a much more interesting album than I remembered it being back in 2003, when I listened to it once at the label’s offices, went back to my office and wrote a scorching review that got reprinted in about ten alt-weeklies across the country and probably earned me a spot on Lars Ulrich’s enemies list. I’m not gonna go into total historical-revisionism mode here and now, but trust me: There’s a lot to like about St. Anger. Go back and listen with an open mind, and when you’re listening to it, remind yourself that it’s not about you. They didn’t make that album to fuck with longtime fans, and they didn’t make it by accident. They made it because it was the album they wanted to make, and it sounds that way (right down to Lars’s drums) because that’s how they wanted it to sound. If you don’t like it, that’s your business, but they weren’t thinking about you when they made it. And here’s the really interesting thing – it now stands revealed as an album that must be heard in the light of Death Magnetic. Not because the new album is a sequel, but rather because DM doesn’t sound anything like Anger.

What it does sound like is a confident, artistically mature metal band that’s no longer running scared. The advance quotes about how the band was attempting to go back and rediscover their 1986 selves? Not entirely bullshit. But that’s not the whole story, not even close.

What Metallica’s done is write a bunch of riffs that sound like outtakes from Master Of Puppets and …And Justice For All, and interweave them with riffs from the boogie-rock version of Metallica that made Load and ReLoad. And more often than not, it works. The album’s first three songs, “That Was Just Your Life,” “The End Of The Line” and “Broken, Beat & Scarred” are all fast, tough thrashers with killer guitar solos and exactly the mix of riffs I described two sentences ago. Things start off with a heartbeat, and some melancholy guitar straight off the Black Album, but then we’re off to the races, the riffage sawing away at your ear as Hetfield barks like a demented auctioneer. If “That Was Just Your Life” was five minutes long instead of seven, it would be a total victory. The same is true of the next two tracks, which are just under eight and six-and-a-half minutes long respectively; only a failure to edit, not weakness of fundamental structure, keeps them from being classic Metallica anthems. Pretty much every song on this album is, if not a home run, at least a triple. Even “The Day That Never Comes,” which I didn’t much like as a first single (I would have preferred they come out of the gate with “Cyanide,” and now that I’ve heard it, “The End Of The Line” would be a good choice, too), works better within the context of the album as a whole. And the closing one-two punch is phenomenal: Just as they did on Master Of Puppets and …And Justice For All, they end this disc with an extended instrumental, the 10-minute “Suicide & Redemption,” followed by the headlong, crushing “My Apocalypse.”

Death Magnetic is a unified, solid album, something you can’t really say about St. Anger or the Loads. The only song that disrupts its flow is “The Unforgiven III,” which brings in piano and cellos for a sort of Ennio Morricone feel – no surprise, given that they’ve come onstage to the composer’s “The Ecstasy Of Gold” for years. No, it doesn’t stay in that territory; it’s “Unforgiven III,” not “Nothing Else Matters II,” and it gets heavy as fuck by the end, while retaining a cinematic grandeur. It’s far from a bad song, but trilogies are a bad idea, and the melody and mood this new chapter offers would probably work just a little better if it was allowed to stand on its own, rather than being shackled to the half-decent original song and the wretched sequel.

There’s something else important about this album – it sounds like a band. Like four people playing music in a room. A big, reverby room, sure, but still, there’s an organic feel here that’s impossible to deny. Rick Rubin’s hippie-Zen, absentee-landlord approach to the studio is the butt of lots of jokes (including some from artists he’s “produced”), but he got ten truly strong performances out of Metallica, so credit where due.

And that brings me to the last thing I want to talk about, which is what Death Magnetic says about St. Anger. There are three immediately discernible differences between this album and the last one: Hetfield’s vocals, Ulrich’s drums, and Hammett’s guitar. There are solos (lots of ’em, and damn good ones), the snare sounds like a drum instead of a trash-can lid (indeed, the kit is recorded super-dry, for a sound that reminds me of the early ’90s work of New York art-thrashers Prong), and James has recovered his ability to stay on pitch. Which reveals something we should have known all along: that he let his voice crack and go raw on St. Anger because his delivery of that album’s lyrics was as much a reflection of his inner turmoil as the words themselves. That’s why the drums sounded that way, that’s why there were no guitar solos - St. Anger was about pain. Relentless pain, with no relief. Metal’s punishing, repetitive riffs build tension, which is relieved through the catharsis of the solo. Metallica weren’t interested in offering catharsis last time out – they wanted to shove our faces in their pain. Not so this time. It’s clear to me after only two-and-a-half listens to Death Magnetic that Metallica have emerged from a defensive crouch they’ve been in for years, and it’s good to have them back. This album is like an armadillo unrolling itself to reveal a dragon. Real metal’s been on the upswing lately, with older bands delivering massive albums and new bands building on tradition in thrilling ways. Death Magnetic goes on the shelf alongside Iron Maiden’s A Matter Of Life And Death, Testament’s The Formation Of Damnation, and Judas Priest’s Nostradamus: I didn’t think they still had it in ’em, and I’m really glad they do. I haven’t loved a Metallica album since …And Justice For All, but Death Magnetic is very likely to wind up being my Album of the Year.


[Another new outlet: This is my first piece for the Denver alt-weekly Westword.]

All Hope Is Gone
Four albums in (five, if you're an eBay-stalking obsessive), Slipknot is having an identity crisis. Frontman Corey Taylor's side project, Stone Sour, has allowed him to unmask his sensitive singer-songwriter side, and that's well represented here on "Snuff" and "Dead Memories" — the former a half-acoustic ballad, the latter a slab of post-grunge radio rock. Guitarist Mick Thomson and drummer Joey Jordison, on the other hand, have death-metal dreams; there are double-kick drum explosions and widdly guitar solos all over this record, including some serious whammy-bar abuse on "This Cold Black." The explosive rage of old is now tempered by the wish to mature — no surprise, given that all nine are in their thirties, but potentially alienating to their younger, eternally pissed-off fans.

[Also reprinted in the Dallas Observer.]

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


Alec Baldwin is probably my favorite living American actor. (It's a very close race between him and Kurt Russell.) His work in Glengarry Glen Ross is hilarious and deserves its cult status, but The Edge and The Shadow are on my short list of "SuperStation movies," alongside Road House and, much as I hate to admit it, the Thomas Jane version of The Punisher - if I come across it on basic cable, no matter what point it's up to, I'll watch it to the end. He's also great in Malice and an assload of smaller roles in Outside Providence, The Aviator and The Departed. And I don't even need to talk about how great he is on 30 Rock - they could almost do that show like a Beckett play, with nothing but Fey and Baldwin on a bare stage, and I'd watch. But as this awesome New Yorker profile reveals, Alec Baldwin is also out of his goddamned mind.