Jonas Renkse is a difficult man to photograph. For the entirety of Katatonia’s set Wednesday night at Wooly’s, the singer kept his face deliberately obscured behind a mass of hair; as if not wanting to face the crowd. But his jovial between-song demeanor and powerful performance spoke otherwise; his exquisite vocals the undeniable focal point of the Swedish quartet’s excellent hour long set opening for prog metal grand poobahs Opeth. In some ways, Herr Renkse’s locks could be a metaphor for Katatonia’s music; their underlying metal-ness often obscured by heaps of beautifully dark, multi-textured melancholia.
I’ve long tried to come up with an excuse to write about Black Sabbath’s Born Again. Most who’ve heard it will probably agree with me that it doesn’t belong on any top albums list you can thing of, yet it possesses a certain strange appeal that’s as much because of its flaws (of which there are many) as it is in spite of them. As I was loading all the Black Sabbath I own onto my iTunes and got ’round to this 1983 disasterpiece, I finally said to hell with it, it’s time to devote some digital ink (not to be confused with the “Digital Bitch;” keep away from her) to one of the weirder metal albums in my collection.
To say that I was highly anticipating seeing Ghost in the flesh would probably be the understatement of the year. Their 2010 debut full length Opus Eponymous has been in near constant rotation since its release, and this year’s Infestissumam already has a place in my year-end top five all but locked up. There is something about their combination of Luciferian lyrics, infectious yet hard-rocking pop hooks and outlandish visuals that’s incredibly appealing to this old fan of KISS, Alice Cooper and King Diamond, artists with which Ghost clearly shares a lineage.
The last time I wrote about the Swedish sensation known as Ghost, I stated that the less I thought of them as a metal band, the more I found myself enjoying them. Their debut album Opus Eponymous was released on a metal label (Rise Above/Metal Blade) and featured distorted guitars, but was at its core a pop album; those vocal harmonies were more about The Beach Boys than Mercyful Fate, and the songs themselves were saccharine odes to Satan so addictive that I imagined even Pat Robertson’s wrinkly old Dungeons & Dragons-hating ass would have a hell of a time keeping them out of his head if he were ever exposed. Indeed, Ghost were an anomaly in the metal world; a band that praised Lucifer with the best of them, but did so in a way that actually stood a chance of sending the average joe or jane down ye olde left hand path.
Sleeping on fucking awesome bands seems to be the story of my life lately. My Last.fm scrobbler claims that I’d listened to Faustcoven thirty times prior to getting down with Hellfire & Funeral Bells on my computer for the first time, but I sure as heck don’t remember ever experiencing this doomed excellence prior to taking advantage of Nuclear War Now! Productions’ recent mega-sale and picking up the band’s third album on CD. Granted, I used to listen to a lot of random things while completely shit-hammered at ungodly hours in college, so it is entirely possible that the brain cells that remember Faustcoven have been lost forever to the whiskey gods. Whatever the case may be, after spending a great deal of time with this ghastly recording, all I can say is goddamn, have I been missing out.
Pennsylvania-based miscreants The Beyond bill themselves as a cross between punk rock and black metal; picture for a moment GG Allin fronting ’90s Profanatica and that’s almost exactly what you’re getting with the band’s debut full length, Frostbitepanzerfuck. When the first song on an album is called “Roto-Cunt,” and two tracks later you’re getting bashed in the skull by a cover of the aforementioned Allin’s own “Cunt Sucking Cannibal,” with “Goat Sodomizer” sandwiched in-between, you should have a pretty good idea of what you’re in for. This is gutter-piss punk metal that wants to fill your every orifice with sticky black jism; PC police, enter at your own risk and prepare to get fucked.
If I remember correctly, The Sword were among the first bands to get the dreaded “hipster metal” tag lobbed at them when they came seemingly out of nowhere back in 2006 with Age of Winters. I personally didn’t understand it; since when has ’70′s Sabbath flavored riff rock ever been considered “hip?” Do hipsters really listen to/like this stuff? The town I live in has a pretty sizeable hipster contingent, which is quite surprising for being centered smack dab in the asshole of the Midwest, but I have never once seen any of them at a metal or rock show, they’re too busy drinking coffee and listening to Bon Iver or some shit. Perhaps it had something to do with the way the band looked; Satan forbid someone make this music without sporting a navel-grazing billy goat beard and a denim vest that smells like a thirty-year-old beer fart. In reality, it was probably a combination of the hype surrounding the band and a pervasive media presence. Age of Winters was a competent if flawed album, but The Sword would continue to uh, sharpen their approach with 2008′s excellent Gods of the Earth, an album that (at least to these ears) was both heavier and catchier than what had come before. I somehow missed the quartet’s third album, the science-fiction concept album Warp Riders, but when Apocryphon was released earlier this year, I was ready to check back in with the band so many metalheads seemingly love to hate.
2012 has been more stressful than a motherfucker; probably one of the most all-around stressful years of my life. Buying a house + assorted family and work-related issues that I wouldn’t even dream of getting into here managed to turn the year into a goddamn pressure-cooker. I’m pretty sure the only things that kept me alive were my wife’s unwavering love (and limitless patience) and an avalanche of incredible music. In 2011 I was feeling pretty jaded and dissatisfied with the state of heavy metal, this year I found myself feeling better about things than I have in years. That isn’t to say there weren’t great albums released in 2011, there were, but in 2012 I felt like there was so much greatness that I couldn’t possibly keep up with it all.
After Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in 1994, alternative rock, the supposed savior of the mainstream, took a shit and died. The loss of Nirvana seemingly created a domino effect; the remaining “big bands” of the genre either broke up, imploded or simply petered out, with the exception of Pearl Jam, who became alt rock’s answer to The Grateful Dead (as if we needed another one), while the lesser known bands went back underground. For me, those bands belong to a certain time and place; Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains were a big part of the soundtrack to my teenage years. I didn’t discriminate between heavy metal and so-called grunge; it was all just a bunch of ugly, hairy dudes with guitars playing big, loud riffs.
Rumors of deathrock’s uh, death, are greatly exaggerated. Pinkish Black proved it was still alive and well with their excellent self-titled debut earlier this year, and now Portland, Oregon’s Atriarch have knocked it out of the goddamn park with Ritual of Passing. This isn’t your granddaddy Rozz Williams’ deathrock though. While it might be built on a tortured foundation similar to what bands like Christian Death were putting down back in the day, Atriarch breaths new life into the genre by incorporating the musical vocabularies of doom and black metal into their approach, making their brand of diseased heaviness that much more, well, deathly.