Sepultura – Chaos A.D.

Silence means death

For many, Chaos A.D. marks the beginning of the end for Sepultura – this highly divisive album is seen as their fall from grace and their first step into the pits they inhabit today. While sonically it did pave the way for the slop the band would put out after it, the transition made here is a successful one. On this album, Sepultura underwent a fairly drastic shift in sound to groove metal – obvious comparisons to Pantera can be made, with the riffs here being much simpler than on previous efforts. The band relies on texture, directness, percussive heaviness and simplicity for impact as opposed to an assault on the senses through speed and technicality. Max’s vocals always tended more towards shouting than growling but here he sounds higher pitched, a bit more monotone, consistently louder and more angry sounding. The soloing and drumming meanwhile is in fact more active and technical than on past efforts – in a similar fashion to Pantera the reduced technicality of the riffs means the soloing and drumming has been spiced up to provide more variation to the songs.

However, the feel of this album certainly isn’t merely that of a Pantera clone, as there is a distinct punk spirit running throughout the album, which manifests mainly in the focus of the music. The various songs here are much more stripped down in presentation than even something like ‘Walk’, with a lot more focus going towards big and simple messages and motifs within the songs, with anything else taking a back seat. The soloing for instance has been stripped of most of its melody, and as such they exist solely to serve the song by being a point of contrast within them for some variation. While there are a good few riffs in any given track of varying types, they are the principle motifs of the songs and exist to be as memorable as possible, with the band stripping them down to the bare minimum to make them and thus the songs as immediate and high-impact as possible. The drums exist to accentuate those riffs and give them impact by doubling up their percussive nature. The songs are built around verse-chorus song structures with very catchy, simple choruses usually consisting of just a few words, as well as simpler verses. The vocals are more straightforward too – they are there simply to relay the lyrics and as such are stripped of what little tonal variation they had. Everything exists solely to turn each song into an engaging and memorable vehicle for the band’s anger and their messages – it’s all been stripped down to the bare essentials.

Music this focused and stripped down requires a great deal of passion and creativity to get by, in a similar fashion to punk and alternative rock, and it is here where the band succeeds. They have a knack for making things stick by picking only the most memorable riffs to put in a song, as well as penning the most memorable lyrics (this album’s lyrics are full of earworms and quotables – this review’s title being one example.) The solos, while noisy, atonal and technical, never go overboard and start noodling or otherwise detracting from the focus of the songs. The drums are hit hard, and despite the simple nature of the music the drum performance is loaded with lots and lots of interesting fills (often influenced by tribal music) to back the riffs up. The guitars sound heavy, textured and thick, and the riffs are played with a great deal of conviction. The vocals too sound righteously angry, with Max making for a convincing, truly captivating frontman. It sounds as if he put his heart into the messages he is shouting forth which makes it much easier to take them seriously, and the general passion of the performances all around results in songs that feel very crucial, as if the band have to get their sounds out there. The band also does well to mix it up in songs too, with very few tracks ever stagnating on one idea for too long. There’s always a faster thrash/hardcore influenced section, breakdown, solo or some other contrasting section around the corner, with each part consistently bringing its own memorable ideas to the table (a riff, a set of lyrics, a drum pattern or another idea entirely.) For all the deliberate stripping down Sepultura’s music has undergone, most of these tracks are as energetic and dynamic as before and due to their simplicity have a much more immediate impact on the listener as the band waste no time in getting to the meat of a song’s ideas and messages.

The album mostly remains within the realm of hardcore/groove/thrash, with some songs leaning more towards one or two of the three. The opener, title track and most famous song here ‘Refuse/Resist’ is a perfect mission statement for the album as a whole. The song drips with a rebellious, angered spirit that translates into how furious and strong the performances are, with its mid-tempo verses and undeniable hook backed up by a set of fantastic groove riffs, before the band break into a speedy bridge as Andreas solos away like there’s no tomorrow. Tracks like ‘Territory’, ‘Nomad’ or ‘Amen’ go for more mid-tempo, crushing grooves while ‘Biotech is Godzilla’ is excellent and to-the-point crossover thrash song and tracks such as ‘Propaganda’ and ‘Manifest’ mix up faster and more mid-tempo sections. ‘We Who Are Not As Others’ in an interesting, mostly instrumental, piece that continuously builds up from a slow groove riff to the climax of the band shouting the title, with an increasingly frantic drum performance, strings and leads accenting the song nicely. The New Model Army cover is a successful translation of the song to the album’s style, creating a rather dark track that thematically fits in quite well and provides some variety to the album. Another interesting track is ‘Kaiowas’ – an acoustic jam with pounding tribal percussion that functions as a protest song of sorts, one that fits in perfectly with everything else here in spirit if not in style.

Whatever it may have represented for the band and metal as a whole, Chaos A.D. will remain as a truly remarkable milestone and one of the genre’s crown jewels for years to come. It’s an extremely creative, potent and cohesive blend of aggression, memorability and passion, one that remains virtually unrivalled in metal to this day. It’s not for everybody, but giving it a chance and allowing it to grow on you might just turn out to be very rewarding.

Rating: 90%

Machine Head – The More Things Change…

Difficult to fathom

Of every album in Machine Head’s catalogue this is the most forgotten, and with good reason. The band manages to write some of their most confused and unfocused material for this album, and as a result this is their least consistent and most uneven work. On top of that, given the band in question it’s naturally a grating, 4th tier exercise in amplifying the worst aspects of whatever sound they’re playing this time round – in this case the band stopped being an imitator of Pantera with a penchant for half-ballads and down-tuning and instead started moving towards playing nu-metal.

In truth the sound on this album isn’t really nu-metal, but the alternative rock influences present on Burn My Eyes are now consistently pushed to the forefront of the music. The grooves are simpler and muddier than before, and there is an increased reliance on two note drones and more percussive chugging. None of the riffs or guitar lines on this album are really memorable or interesting – at no point are any real hard-hitting, massive grooves or any kind of thrash-influenced riffing attempted at all and any grooves on the album amount to nothing more than rejected Chaos A.D. material. There is some usage of the alternative rock chord strum for more melodic material, particularly when clean vocals are used. Another feature of the music is the heavy usage of guitar squeals, which are supposed to create a tense atmosphere of sorts but simply grate on the ears and make songs like ‘Ten Ton Hammer’ truly painful to listen to. This mish-mash of techniques and confused sound makes for an uneven listen, because it’s never clear what the band is going for in any one song – are they trying to be percussive or atmospheric? Melodic or atonal? Driving or droning? It’s very confused music that has no clear objective or focus.

From the guitar tone lacking the same bite it had on Burn My Eyes to the the reduced presence of the riffs in favour of guitar noise, the bass or silence, the band are obviously trying to make their music more atmospheric in a nu-metal sort of way, and then marry that to their heavier groove metal sound but it falls very flat, as the way the band go about it here makes for a dreadful compromise. They haven’t fully taken the plunge into nu-metal territory so the music is more guitar driven than you’d expect; the guitar tone is more percussive and has more impact than most nu-metal and yet the reduced presence of the riffs means the guitarists play very static, uninteresting material. As a result of this the band spends most of any given song trying to be heavy and aggressive but not having the riffs to do so, resulting in a lot of the album being very bland. Because the guitars are the focus of the music, any time they drop out of the music it completely breaks the flow of the song and any time they start squealing it becomes unbearable because the noise is too loud. This is the result of the indecisiveness on the band’s part; a set of musically confused songs that fail at everything they attempt to do.

Complicating matters further is Robb’s vocal performance, which serves to completely ruin any semi-decent moments the band might stumble into once in a while. His hardcore influenced shout lacks punch and impact much like the music behind him, and as a result he doesn’t actually sound all that aggressive. This further robs any power from the album’s heavier moments as he doesn’t have the commanding, powerful voice needed for this kind of music; contrast this performance with Phil Anselmo on Far Beyond Driven and decide who does the better job of being aggressive. His clean vocals are even worse – used during the quiet and melodic moments of the music, they are particularly whiny and weak and ruin the mood. It doesn’t help that they are far more exposed than the shouting, so they are the only focus of the music. His distorted whispering to the sound of guitar squealing is perhaps the worst though, as at these points the music stops being grating and actually becomes painful to listen to.

The songwriting makes matters even worse, as the band see fit to try and be ‘progressive’. While they don’t hover around the 7-10 minute mark for the entire album like they would later on, every song on the album is still too long and contains only a handful of ideas, each largely unrelated to one another. They tend to dwell on a given idea for most of the song while sticking to verse-hook structures with poorly placed ‘atmospheric’ sections and other assorted nonsense for good measure. None of the songs really flow, rather every track feels like a grab bag of assorted ideas as the band meander from one hook to the next. None of the songs are terribly catchy despite their attempts at accessible hooks, mostly due to bad singing and lacklustre vocal lines.

There’s no real reason to listen to this album. Everything the band tries to do falls flat due to numerous deficiencies in performance, production and songwriting, every song manages to be grating and boring, nothing really sticks out for a positive reason and the whole thing just lacks focus. It’s a mess, one which makes The Blackening look positively cohesive and properly written.

Rating: 8%

Metallica – Metallica

Metallica go through the never

So this is it, the infamous eponymous effort from the band we all love to hate. Some things should be cleared up immediately – this is a sellout by the band (one of the few times that’s really applicable, to be honest) and this did kill off thrash completely (but the bloating it suffered towards the end of the ’80s was the major factor behind that.) However, selling out is a fairly minor sin by my judgement given that the music is the most important part of an album, and really an album can’t be blamed for others imitating it because it isn’t as if another band *has* to change style in the wake of a commercial behemoth such as this. No, this album’s flaws rest entirely on its restraint and lack of ambition.

As the cover art and album title symbolise, this album is very much geared towards simplification and minimalism, and at every turn this album is scaled down from its predecessor. Take for instance the drumming – Lars was at his peak around the last album with at least a smattering of more complex drum patterns, fills and double bass, whereas here his performance consists of simpler straight beats. The soloing has been toned down in technicality as well, with Hammett relying more on the wah pedal and having shorter slots to fit the shorter songs. The riffs for the most part are no longer highly aggressive or technical in the mould of their first 3 albums or droning and monolithic as was the case with …and Justice for All, rather they take on a highly simplified heavy/groove metal character with only a handful of riffs per song. While I can appreciate that all of this was done as they couldn’t take the sound of …and Justice for All any further, it feels as though the band plays it a bit too safe with most of the material, and this shows at just about every turn. The album never really surprises or challenges the listener akin to the more aggressive, thought-provoking and intelligent works, and more importantly the band members never really challenge themselves either.

This restraint also becomes apparent when the song structures and progressions are considered. Just about every single song is built upon a verse-chorus structure with no variation in this regard, and it’s clear that the hook is the focus of any given song. While it again would have been better if the band members had stretched themselves a bit more in this regard, the album doesn’t get stale as to their credit every single hook on this album and the vast majority of the riffs are memorable. At the same time however memorability can be attained through either repetition without progression or writing the best possible material, and unfortunately the band lean too heavily on the former, with a lot of songs being developed in a sluggish and flat manner. For example, the hit singles ‘Sad But True’ and ‘Enter Sandman’ simply don’t have enough musical ideas to justify their 5+ minute running times. The same can be said of ‘My Friend of Misery’ and perhaps even the acoustic ballad ‘Nothing Else Matters’, though the latter does have a rather touching feel to it and a superb solo from James. On his vocal performance – it is one of the only elements on this album that isn’t a considerable regression or otherwise mediocre. He retains most of the grit and bite to his voice but also deals with a fair amount of more standard singing which is pulled off well on a technical level – and as the ballads show his voice can be rather emotive as well.

In fact, it’s songs like ‘Nothing Else Matters’, ‘Wherever I May Roam’ and especially ‘The Unforgiven’ that highlight the flaws of this album more than anything else. These three songs (as well as ‘The God that Failed’) all feature fairly strong atmospheric qualities, with ‘Wherever I May Roam’ being an epic even by Metallica standards, and through these songs one can realise that this album is the first by Metallica to not have an overriding atmosphere throughout, which was present in spades on the last 4 releases. They do shoot for a darker feel across the album through the production, lyrics and sense of melody, and while there are flashes of this at points a lot of the material isn’t quite well written, ambitious or convincingly performed enough to really have an atmosphere in the way the aforementioned tracks do. It is also with these songs that one gets the sense that the band did the best that they could when writing them, which isn’t true of a lot of the other songs. This album is not a consistent listen, and a few tracks like the rather plain ‘Holier Than Thou’ could have easily been dropped to make it a more memorable and concise listening experience. The combination of being midtempo largely throughout and primarily being composed of simple, groovy riffs leaves variation at something of a premium, with about a third of this album’s tracks not really standing out in any particular way and not having enough of a personality to live up to the legacy of Metallica.

Despite me largely thrashing this album though, the band certainly did succeed in one department – solely as a piece of entertainment this is a well done and functional album. On a technical level the band never skips a beat, every single song is enjoyable while it is on (until one starts to think about the repetition or safeness of the material) and the production is perfect. I’ve never heard a metal album with such phenomenal production – everything on this album sounds crisp, as heavy as an anvil and full of life. If only such perfectionism could have been applied to the material, because as it is this album is the sound of an artist not being the best they could be and while it ticks most of the boxes it also reeks of wasted potential. It’s an important release for sure, and it’s not bad by any stretch, but it is fairly disappointing.

Rating: 75%

Napalm Death – Diatribes

Far Beyond Time Bomb A.D. 

The ’90s was a time of reckoning for a lot of classic ’80s metal and punk bands. Usually said bands jumped onto a trend and lost any of their identity, stuck to their guns only to fall flat, or ended up producing a magnum opus. Napalm Death were odd in that they not only managed to jump onto a trend (hardcore/groove metal) but then actually made a very respectable transition with Fear, Emptiness, Despair. Sadly though, they couldn’t keep up the momentum of that album and in 1996 dropped their worst album. Mind you, for a nadir it’s hardly awful, being more forgettable than anything.

To sum up most of the album’s contents it falls squarely into the Chaos A.D./Time Bomb/Far Beyond Driven style, that being a hardcore-informed strain of groove metal, albeit with death growls in place of shouting and nods to other NYHC bands like Helmet or Snapcase. Barring one bonus track on this 2CD (‘Antibody’) as well as the title track, there are no remnants of the band’s classic death/grind hybrid sound at all. None of that darkened, hazy atmosphere of the preceding album is anywhere to be found either – this is probably the most stripped down of ND’s groove albums (distinguished by their modern logo), with the riffing being repetitive and textured, clearly designed to be the brutal yet rhythmic and memorable motif of a given song. There aren’t even any solos; the riffing as well as the beefy death growls of Barney are the main focuses here.

And it’s with this stripped down focus that the album largely fails. Barney is his usual self, with a particularly hardcore-infused take on the death growl with a percussive quality that this style demands, so he isn’t at fault. The real problem is the music itself. Now, while I can appreciate that some time was spent crafting this album, with everything being meticulously performed and the energy levels remaining high throughout, I can also say that the music here pretty much falls flat. Very few of these riffs, and therefore by extension these songs, are memorable at all. Nothing really sticks, which is a big problem for a riff-driven album like this. The most memorable part is in fact the drum performance; what it lacks in blasting it makes up for by being a continuously rolling, shifting mass that dictates the direction of the music that also manages not to distract from the main show (the guitars and vocals.)

It’s not all bad though, and some tracks clearly stand out to me in one way or another. This album marks the first time the band would throw in a ‘dirge’ – a slower, experimental song which is akin to ambient music in its construction (layers being added and removed over time, slowly evolving the song) that features dissonant, sustained chords. In this case said song is ‘Cold Forgiveness’, and it manages to work to this album’s strength of textured, monolithic riffing, as well as featuring a much needed change of pace in both the music and Barney’s spoken word performance. And in spite of myself, the rather infamous ‘Cursed to Crawl’ is a winner to me as well, having some of the most memorable and well-written riffing on the album and a more varied vocal performance (even if it is quasi-rapped(!)) The opener is quite the shock as well – with its bright, melodic and memorable riffing as well as its catchy nature ‘Greed Killing’ is probably the single best song ND made during this period and is easily their most distinctive.

However, apart from other songs like ‘Self Betrayal’ (another dirge on the 2CD) and ‘My Own Worst Enemy’ (which has fairly distinctive riffing and rhythms) this album simply doesn’t work all that well. For something so focused on being memorable and textured very few of the songs actually achieve this goal. Nothing on the album is bad, but at the same time not a lot of it is inherently good given what the band were going for. It’s well worth it for ‘Greed Killing’ and even ‘Cursed to Crawl’, and the album is pretty cool while it’s on but ultimately it leaves you wanting of something more than the wall of stock groove riffs and death growls it constantly pushes to the forefront.

Rating: 60%

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