Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath

A few weeks back, I assigned the song “Black Sabbath” to some students for their presentation. I got an email: “Hey Miss, we know our band is Black Sabbath, but what song are we supposed to talk about?” “Black Sabbath,” I replied. I waited for the inevitable response, “No, what song?” but it didn’t come. The presentation was accordingly kick-ass.

The presenters scared the hell out of the rest of the class, with the song’s detailed back story and the track played at full volume. Most of them didn’t respond well, and I’m assuming went home and had nightmares.

This, this opening track, is the beginning of metal, no? Maybe the genre’s signature song.

Then last week I was in my publicity course and my prof was telling us how Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo outsold the bible in Scandinavian countries. “Well, here’s why,” I said. I asked her to search “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey Satan” on youtube, and she floundered. “I’m scared,” she said. “I grew up Catholic. I can’t even type that word.” We convinced her, and got to this clip.

Metal relies on this ambiguous relationship with the devil, with evil, our terrified notions of figures in black cloaks stealing books off our shelves in the middle of the night. I’ve stopped wondering where my Archie comics have all disappeared to since I jettisoned my Christian beliefs, knowing this is my punishment for welcoming the dark side when I started listening to Black Sabbath.

But ambiguity is the key word here. It’s no secret that Sabbath pushes those fear buttons in their listeners at the same time that they’re terrified themselves. Sorting out your inner darkness requires entertaining that which doesn’t sit well with the goddamned narrative of rainbows and unicorns we’re all fed as kids. “What is this that stands before me?” Fuck if I know. And the ambiguous relationship with darkness that we all dance with, somewhere, is only exacerbated by the tonal ambiguity of the song’s tritone riff.

Is this my favourite Sabbath album? No. I don’t think so. It’s classic though. You think about what was going on before it was released: Hendrix’s heavy blues is all through Iommi’s playing … the chaos of MC5, their association with the Detroit counterculture and things like the Democratic Convention in 1968 broiling with the British teenage discontent and hopelessness. This album was bound to happen. It says everything about the time, musically and lyrically; its metaphors speaking for a period where nothing was certain and everyone was messed up.

At the same time, Black Sabbath is anchored by its clear blues and jazz roots. The opening of “The Wizard” isn’t really metal. It’s blues rock just a step harder than the Stones or Cream. I find this album interesting as a marker of that transition between hard rock and metal. They really could have gone either way. “Wasp” has such a strong rock groove, limited play with rhythm, a solid base in what came before them, but you can also see where Sabbath’s contemporaries would have picked up on where they left and started playing with jarring your expectations in unmatched sections that somehow work together. “Wicked World”, obviously rooted in traditional jazz, against “Behind the Wall of Sleep’s” lyrics’ double meaning – let’s get to know each other before we fall in love – oh, you’re not who I thought you were – is great.

Even though it’s not my favourite Sabbath album, it was a good one for this week. I’ve got a few more waiting for later.

“OH NO, NO PLEASE GOD HELP ME.” Yeah. No fucking kidding.

Slayer, Hell Awaits

Slayer.

Slayer, Slayer, Slayer.

I don’t know where I’m at with this album, or with Slayer at all. As much as I’d like to put these albums on constant rotation, sometimes that plan fails. Slayer got interrupted in the last couple weeks by unrelated music – Ian Tyson’s Cowboyography, a bit of Justin Timberlake, etc. Of note: Beck’s Sea Change is a great soundtrack to a tipsy walk home.

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Yet it was – and still is – Slayer that has anchored my general frame of mind despite the fact that I feel emotionally disconnected from the music.

I’ve long struggled to understand Slayer’s appeal. They were on regular rotation through one of my relationships, and I didn’t latch on then. I asked a couple male colleagues this week if they were fans, and though they’re generally metal fans like me, they couldn’t bridge the gap between other bands and Slayer.

So without analysis as to why I’m reacting to Hell Awaits the way I am, here I go:

This music is all angular. Right? Not melodic, not friendly, it’s not even really timbrally interesting. It’s timbrally consistent, predictable, but not interesting. That doesn’t leave much: so yup, it’s all about the rhythm. I’m thinking about the meter shifts for each short section in the title track, the illusion of slowing down for a bridge section halfway through “At Dawn They Sleep”. These tricks, to me, raise the album to amazing status, making up for the lack of other “musical” components like singable melodies.

Not knowing much about their history, and reluctant to dig into it before I listen to more of their material closely, I suspect the backbone of their repertoire is Jeff Hanneman’s compositional prowess. Seems like everyone’s just following his lead. Not to say they aren’t all contributing crucial parts; in particular, Dave Lombardo’s drumming knocks me out. We’d all be okay had drum machines never been invented; he’d take care of that job. I mean seriously, what’s up with the end of “At Dawn”? Just fucking crazy. And then it launches right into “Praise of Death” with barely any gap … imagine seeing that live. (I guess I could; they’re here next week, but I think I’m seeing Swan Lake that day. Erp.)

One thing I’d complain about is the singing. Not because it’s bad; I understand Araya’s guttural delivery for both the responsibility it has to convey the songs’ subject matter and the necessity of matching it against the guitar. I’d like to hear these songs without vocals though; I think they’d stand on their own. For me, the interest lies in the interaction between the instrumentalists.

I suppose I should have found a different way into Hell Awaits; a more natural progression through some of its ancestral punk, through early Metallica as it sped up, etc. Maybe now if I go backward, I’ll see the some of the roots of what Slayer’s doing here. I also really like the fact that they don’t shy away from keeping the overall aesthetic kind of raw and sparse. In a sense. I know the guitar is approached in a full and messy way at points, but they always pull it back to the basics. It’s a relief from the constant sonic onslaught in last week’s Iron Maiden.

In the process of writing this review, I put the album on again as a backdrop. I decided I’m in love with it this last time around. The thing that always gets me about metal, makes me adore a group, is when they have the ability to make dramatic rhythmic shifts, either changing emphasis through heavy syncopation between all the instruments, or by laying distinct metrical sections side by side, wrecking your expectations every few seconds. I’m nuts about the opening of “Crypts of Eternity”. The single riff, then layered with bass and drums growing fuller, everyone together, but also fighting each other. Yup.

Needs to be listened to on good headphones, though. Not little earbuds.

Next week: Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath

Album 2: Iron Maiden, Somewhere Back in Time

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It says a lot that I’ve listened to this album twice a day for the last week and I’m not yet sick of it. Although I’ve listened to it lots before, I’m having a fairly strong emotional reaction to it now, partially because the aggression throughout appeals to me; mostly because I’m knocked out by the technical and compositional skill behind these songs.

I know it’s not fair to review an album of greatest hits, but hey, I’m just getting started and this was on my shelf. Anyway, I like the idea of starting with an overview and going back to some of their other releases to see what else stands up to the songs on Somewhere Back in Time. I was also going to watch Flight 666 to augment listening to the album this week, but didn’t get time. I kind of like going in blindly, not knowing a whole lot about the band, because it will make me focus on the music. So to the music I go.

My friend asked me what I was listening to last week; when I told him, he said he liked IM for their camp. Interesting…I hadn’t really considered that, but that element is there. This is overblown, borderline mainstream 80s metal. Everything is fast, everything is loud, everything is overdriven, there are no subtle moments or periods of reflection. Songs are guided by recognizable riffs and melodies, which is probably why Somewhere Back in Time is a nice entry point to IM for me. To be expected: the songs need to be enormous enough to accommodate Bruce Dickinson’s voice.

Let’s move on to some of the key moments:

Opening of “The Number of the Beast”. Funny, but in the right context, could be terrifying? Maybe.

I can’t let “Run to the Hills” go by without mentioning it. You know, I mean, aside from the song’s awesomeness, the appeal of IM and other similar bands might be the way they can bring social justice issues or history lessons to a malleable group of young (mostly male?) listeners. I don’t always pay attention to lyrics, and I’ll admit that some of those put forth by IM are ridiculous, but there are moments worth listening to, if for no other reason than their sympathetic positioning with the marginalized.

Even though I like “Can I Play with Madness”, I gotta say, it’s too borderline pop for me. I think if I had been a fan at that time, I may have abandoned the band. It’s the only track on the album that I’d be tempted to skip over.

So, my two favourites are the 7-minute songs. I suspect this is because they’ve got a bunch of interesting changes throughout, and the focus shifts more to the band – and especially Dave Murray. What happens in “Phantom of the Opera” crystallizes what I like about his playing and the band at large.

See, there’s this tendency in lots of progressive rock, metal, etc., especially of this era, to revel in one’s own guitar skillz. We all know this. Off-putting to say the least, unless you’re a devout worshipper (I like all the literature that’s come out lately on metal acting as a replacement for religion for its listeners). “Phantom of the Opera” is a potential example of one of these masculine-guitar-technique-displaying-forums. It starts with an off-time melody that winds around in a weird way, that Dickinson later joins in singing. Actually, it reminds me of George Strait’s song, “The King of Broken Hearts” – you think, how did they come up with such a ridiculous melody? It makes no symmetrical, logical sense, and seems so off from the accompaniment.

Around 3:30, it shifts to a set of arpeggiations that very nearly drive me crazy, and not in a good way. To me, these 3-note diddles are the worst form of electric guitar noodling – the musical equivalent of whipping out one’s dick to show off to the world – not cool in most contexts, but acceptable if somebody has requested showing of such dick. Had this gone on much longer in “Phantom”, I’d probably say screw it and turn it off, but the band saves it by doing a few things: 1) adding drums and building the texture up gradually; 2) including harmony throughout and shifting pitch for each iteration; 3) stopping just in time, and moving on to other repetitions that are a little more substantial. I especially like the set around 4:55, a riff that makes a bit more melodic sense (this is best heard in serious headphones, btw).

The song that really stands out comes second last: “Hallowed Be Thy Name”. Seasonal, I suppose, what with the creepy riff and clock chimes. Dickinson’s voice is surprisingly tame in the intro, setting up the insanity that’s about to appear (by the way, how he holds that note on “Low” in the first phrases is insane in itself).

First thing I love: the dropping out of the band for the statement of the first verse. Then the way they integrate the same riff with a chugging accompaniment second time around.

Second thing: all the changing rhythms, and the different ways they are articulated – away from staccato and to legato, with harmony in the second statement of the first instrumental bridge. More importantly for this is the drawn-out climax. From 4:32 forward, the push of the full band through three bars, then to a six-note descending riff – am I wrong in thinking they’re stealing this directly from Rush? The squealing solo overtop didn’t need to appear, but I suppose it’s allowing the main material to continue without becoming boring. Then it shifts again around 5:25-5:30, with a different finisher. Best part about all of these mini-sections is the smooth transitions between them – fucks you up a bit as a listener, then you grab on to the new one.

Well, I’m sad to let this one go because I’m still into it, but onward.

Thanks to the old boyfriend mentioned in the first post – Liam Mitchell – and to my colleagues Marc Finch, Chris McDonald, and Geoff Whittall, who are all sending suggestions my way.

Here’s my updated list:
-Deep Purple, Machine Head
-Judas Priest, Screaming for Vengeance
-Venom, Black Metal
-Motorhead (something)
-Pantera, Vulgar Display of Power
-Gorguts, Colored Sands and Obscura
-Melt Banana
-Dillinger Escape Plan, Calculating Infinity and Irony is a Dead Scene
-Slayer, God Hates Us AllReign in Blood, and Hell Awaits
-AC/DC, Back in Black
-Black Sabbath, lots (or, some. At least Master of Reality and Black Sabbath. And Paranoid. I don’t know)
-Led Zeppelin, II
-Metallica, Metallica
-MC5, Kick Out the Jams
-Opeth
-In Flames
-God Forbid
-Lamb of God

Next up: Slayer’s Hell Awaits. Not sure how I feel about this yet.

Album 1: Rush, Fly By Night

Why write about metal? Mostly because I don’t want to always write about country music, which I do most of the time. It’s only fair to tell you that I have a PhD in music, in case my occasional tendency to get pedantic accidentally happens here. I’ve read books on metal and taught classes on it, but I’m writing this blog as a fan.

I’m not sure why I like metal, nor have I spent much time analyzing why. I don’t want to wreck my experience of it. And experience it is – I think my listening habits must have something to do with the weather: as the nights get colder and days get darker faster, I find I crave heavier, scarier music. Also, Halloween. I think, though, that my love for metal is rooted in my childhood. Growing up in Calgary meant that most radio stations played some form of classic rock, so the sounds of the intense, high-pitched singers of the 70s and 80s are inextricably linked with the picture of the prairies in my mind. And while I didn’t have a whole lot of teenage suburban angst like many other kids, I think metal still spoke to the feelings of uncertainty we all have at that age.

I most noticed metal around age 13, when I was aimless and without a core group of friends. I spent many of my lunch hours with the metal kids, scoping out the deep corners of the soccer field, watching them smoke, accompanying them on their quest to the corner store to acquire more cigarettes. Metal kids are among the nicest; they suffer from probably the worst feelings of alienation and difference, and they happily take other misfits into their group. Think Freaks and Geeks. I wasn’t like them in many ways, I wore pink lipstick instead of heavy black eyeliner; I didn’t stencil band names on the back of my jacket; I went to ballet class and secretly coveted the latest New Kids on the Block album.

Late at night, though, I’d turn on the top ten countdown on AM 106 and hear groups like Metallica. It would freak me out, but I didn’t switch it off. Down the road, when my grad school boyfriend hosted an overnight noise and metal show, I’d wake up at 4 am to listen to him, and his voice provided comfort against songs that reminded me of how compelling and terrifying Metallica was in previous years.

This blog is dedicated to reviewing the metal albums already on my shelf, with a view to acquiring more based on suggestions from anyone who reads it. I know that Rush is a point of metal contention, and Fly By Night – one of the least metal in their repertoire – more so. Nevertheless, Rush was my real way in to the genre. Geddy Lee’s voice became such a source of fascination to me that I wanted to find others who sang like him (note: there’s no one), and music that was as interesting and complicated as the band’s.

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I think the title track was the second Rush song I noticed, and liked. The first was inevitably “Closer to the Heart”. When I bought the full album, I tended towards the non-hit tracks, as I often do. My favourite, the preposition song “Beneath, Between and Behind”, ended up on regular repeat, and I liked the juxtaposition of softer, ballad-type songs in the vein of Zeppelin’s “Stairway” against the heavy anger of the rest of the album. I thought the whole album was the clearest embodiment of classic rock: it contains some of the genre’s core riffs, song subjects, arrangements, and vocal timbres. The confusion over life’s purpose and our relationship with spirituality crashes against the epic battles of fantasy characters like By-Tor and the Snow Dog.

I think I could have easily become a metal guitarist, had I not been nudged in other directions (musical theatre, jazz, classical piano, blah blah blah) by music teachers and later professors. This past summer, I got to realize a fantasy of converting a room into a practice space, and I started learning all the guitar parts to Fly By Night.

Key moments in the album for me:

- The syncopation in “Beneath, Between, and Behind”. I like how the parts fight against each other through the whole song, and come together for a brief moment after the solo, then split off again. Another dream of mine is to put together a Rush tribute band with my drummer friend, or maybe my brothers, and play this song. I don’t know who would sing Geddy’s parts; maybe if I get a cold or do it first thing in the morning, I could try.

- The guitar battle in “By-Tor and the Snow Dog”. Actually, for a long time I hated this section and sped through it for a weird reason. I have a funny nerve thing in my right ear that reacts to things like the hairdresser spraying water in it, or the grinding guitars in this section. I finally got used to it; probably the best moment comes after with the band repeating the two-note riff that loses its final note in each iteration.

- The two riffs in “Best I Can”.

- The lyrics of “In the End”. Basically, I can’t do anything as well as you.

My plan is to review the albums on my shelf, but I’m taking recommendations too:

-Iron Maiden, Somewhere Back in Time
-Slayer, God Hates Us All and Hell Awaits
-AC/DC, Back in Black
-Black Sabbath, lots (or, some. At least Master of Reality and Black Sabbath. And Paranoid. I don’t know)
-Led Zeppelin, II
-Metallica, Metallica
-MC5, Kick Out the Jams