I’ll be thirty-four this year; just short of halfway to forty. But I’ve never felt like I was getting older as a metalhead until recently. It occurred to me a few weeks ago when I was attempting to listen to a new album by a band that shall remain nameless and is being released by a well respected label; for the first time, I felt like the crotchety old fart who didn’t understand what the hell the young whippersnappers were doing. I simply could not wrap my head around what the appeal of this album was supposed to be or what the intent was. I shut it off after one track on my first attempt, after three tracks on my second attempt. And that’s when it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.
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.
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.
In the last few years, Katatonia has become one of my favorite bands. I always liked them well enough, but recently their music has really clicked with me for some reason. The gloomy atmosphere they so effortlessly create is perfect; dark and depressive yet catchy and somehow beautiful. The last time they toured the US, I had the pleasure of watching them steal the show from Opeth, and they’ll be hitting the states with their Swedish brethren again in a little less than two weeks in support of their latest album, Dead End Kings. The fine folks at Fresno Media helped me get in touch with bassist Nille Sandin to briefly discuss the new album and the upcoming tour.
For over three decades now, Canadian legends Voivod have been making a name for themselves as one of the most forward-thinking metal bands to ever pick up instruments. Their sci-fi-damaged punk-thrash has never been copied (though some have tried); they are one of those bands that is truly unique in every sense of the word, thanks to the singular musical alchemy created when its individual members come together. That alchemy seemingly came to a tragic end in 2005 when founding guitarist Denis “Piggy” D’Amour passed from this plane of existence due to a bout with thyroid cancer. The band went on to release two albums welded together using riffs D’Amour had recorded prior to his untimely death (2006′s Katorz and 2009′s Infini), but it appeared for all intents and purposes that the warriors of ice were no more in the wake of the loss of their beloved guitarist.
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.