Mastodon – Remission

‘Coals under foot, burst into flames…’ 

Given how much of their career Mastodon have spent refining, polishing, smoothing out and mellowing out their sound, it’s pretty jarring going from any of their post-Crack the Skye material to anything they before that album. That said even sticking to their early career, this still sounds wild and unhinged next to the still much more refined Leviathan, say. Remission is the sound of a hungry and ambitious band with a decent amount of experience on their respective instruments, and in many ways is a peak performance in their lengthy career. It’s not quite their best album overall but it easily contains a lot of their best moments, songs, performances, etc. and still stands as a landmark album for both sludge metal and metal as a whole.

At this point in their career, Mastodon played a heavy as hell sludge metal sound that they’d already displayed on their previous material, and they really turn it up a notch here and continue to do their sound justice, with the music being even better crafted and performed and some new ideas being attempted. Remission‘s tracks can be sorted into one of two groups according to their songwriting style – the first consists of generally shorter, more energetic groove/sludge numbers that are essentially a denser, more chaotic and refined version of what was present on their early demos and EPs. The other half meanwhile consists of the longer, more melodic and drawn out progressive/sludge metal numbers with more mellow acoustic/lead-driven sections and sparser vocals. What’s consistent throughout the album though is its production, which sounds amazing. The drum kit sounds thunderous and full, the guitar tone is very dense, thick and big, the overall sound of the album is polished and rich and heavy but not too even as to prevent instruments from bleeding together a bit or sanding the music of its abrasion, and the mix lets everything come through clearly. It’s another obvious step up from their pre-album material which sounded sort of low rent compared to the professional and monstrous presentation here.

There are other elements consistent to both types of song here, one of them being the vocals, which are performed by bassist Troy Sanders and guitarist Brent Hinds. The vocals here are perhaps the strongest of any Mastodon album; while they are inherently less varied as little clean singing is utilised here, the beefy hardcore barks throughout the album sound stronger than they would on subsequent albums as vocal wear and tear hadn’t set in yet. They’re commanding, aggressive, rapid-fire and powerful, standing up to the grinding, and crushing heaviness of the instrumentation behind them. And then of course there is the drumming, which is probably the most famous aspect of Mastodon’s earlier career; hearing these songs, it’s easy to see why. Brann’s drumming is absolutely frantic; these songs are machine-gunned with bouts of showboating fills and other assorted flashy techniques and patterns. He doesn’t forget his role as the timekeeper and rhythmic skeleton of the music of course; and that’s perhaps the best thing about his performance. In spite of the technical flair he manages to roll all of his fills into the framework of the music, meaning the drums and guitars never fit together awkwardly as he never throws off the timing of his drumming. Rather than taking away from the music he only adds to the cacophony, dynamics and chaos of the music by interspersing his more restrained moments with fill after fill. For this reason I think it’s incorrect to say Brann has no restraint or taste, as I find his drumming in general to be far more tastefully applied than say, Derek Roddy’s unending blasting or the constant double bass of some power metal drummers.

As stated, the shorter songs here are very dense and somewhat chaotic; they’re not overtly technical, speedy, dissonant or noisy in the way mathcore or grindcore can be but there is still an emphasis on frequent change-ups in the riffs and drums. The aforementioned excellent drumming from Brann is especially notable on these tracks; he really adds a lot to the chaos, flow and tension of these tracks with his flashy yet tasteful performance. The riffs meanwhile are crushingly heavy, groovy, rapid and percussive with just an undercurrent of melody, locking in perfectly with the drums – from the instantaneously memorable grooves of ‘Crusher Destroyer’ and ‘March of the Fire Ants’ (note also the latter’s beautiful melodic break halfway through) to the churning of ‘Where Strides the Behemoth’ to the choppy thrashing of ‘Burning Man’, a great majority of the guitarwork here hits much harder and is much more memorable than what was on their older material. The riffs really anchor and drive these songs forward, ensuring they become and remain some of most memorable and exciting songs of their entire career, as well as the stronger set of songs on the album.

The lengthier tracks here are slower, more patient, droning, atmospheric and progressive – and they’re easily the less exciting breed of song here, even though they are more indicative of their later direction. Whether in isolation or in the context of the album, they’re merely solid as opposed to absolutely stunning; they’re nice enough while on but they definitely drag the momentum of the more energetic songs down once they start. The rhythm section on these songs is a lot more restrained; the riffs are less technical and choppy, being of the more pure and drawn out sludge variety than anything groovy or thrashy. Brann’s drumming is a lot more measured on these songs with fills coming far less frequently and his beats in general being slower to match the slower pacing. They’re still some of the better lengthy songs they’ve written however; with the crushing sludge riffs aided by the big guitar sound driving the songs forward more than anything from Crack the Skye, and the all too sparingly used vocals and technical drumming going with the riffing nicely. Also of note are the more melodic leads and acoustic guitars found in them (this is especially prominent during ‘Elephant Man’.) These elements being worked into songs alongside their sludgy sound is predictive of what would come to fruition on Blood Mountain and are some of the better moments on the album in general. That said, it’s clear from these songs and most of their later albums that restraint is absolutely not what Mastadon are good at; that the best songs here are no holds barred bangers that throw everything at the wall is not a coincidence.

Despite the inconsistent quality and flow of the tracklist, this is still overall a great album and one of the band’s best. The drumming, riffing and vocals are some of the best performances the band would ever churn out, and this still has the best production of any of their albums. The shorter songs are some of their best tracks ever and the longer songs, while weaker, are still pretty good and at least show a band that was willing to try new things and vary up their music. They’re also proof that they needn’t flush the quality of their music down the toilet by trading in uncompromising heaviness for progression and atmosphere, something they would learn on the next two albums and seemingly unlearn in the years following those. All that aside, this is a very good album; a sludge metal classic that should be heard a few times by any metal fan.

Rating: 90%

Isis – Mosquito Control

‘Poison egg, the implement…’

Isis’ label-backed debut EP Mosquito Control is in retrospect highly reflective of their transitional nature. This is not the sound that we would hear on Panopticon, which says a lot when 3 of that album’s 5 performers also made this. It’s also an early peak for the band, being a very consistent and complete work for such a young band’s debut EP. It’s not what the band became famous for innovating or that original but it shows off an outfit that clearly had the talent needed become something even more, something truly special. And that’s not to take away from this release; it may not be what put them on the map but it’s still a fantastic listen.

Mosquito Control is a crop of tracks that are some of the heaviest and most crushing in Isis’ entire catalogue, with the band playing a rather mid-tempo sludge metal style with a lot of hardcore worked in there and some shots of doom metal at points. ‘Life Under the Swatter’ is a noisier, somewhat faster track and very frenetic that has a lot more hardcore influence and is laced with a jittering, busy drum performance and the hisses of the mosquito swarms alluded to in the lyrics, while ‘Hive Destruction’ sees the band throwing in more groovy, traditional sludge metal riffing while keeping the pace up. Whatever the band go for they have the chops and ideas to pull it off; the guitarwork is consistently busy, interesting and helps drive the song forward with the drums playing a supporting role by matching the complexity, texture and tone of the riffing. The vocal style here is unique to this release in their discography; Aaron Turner’s vocals here are a powerful and intense shout/rasp/shriek that matches the searing instrumentation behind them, and they’re some of the gnarliest vocals he would ever deliver.

The band varies up each song nicely, bringing in multiple contrasting sections such as the tense ambient bridge of ‘Life Under the Swatter’, the groovy doom/sludge breakdown of ‘Hive Destruction’ or the acoustic intro of ‘Poison Eggs’, as well as a good number of riffs and changes in tempo. Critically, the band can weave all of these together and progress effortlessly from one part to the next in a controlled fashion, not coming across as incoherent or choppy which would subtract from the crushing, oppressive atmosphere found throughout this release, which is generated through a combination of excellent songwriting and strong execution of the music (especially the riffs.) The production is great too; everything sounds very large, clear, crisp and heavy. The low end of the bass consistently rumbling away in the background gives the music more weight, while the drums pound hard and the guitars have a thick and sludgy tone to match. It’s all mixed well too (the guitars are slightly above the drums but below the vocals), helping to bring out the most in the music.

There’s also a good amount of variation across the track list; every song here has an identity of its own with the epic, more melodic opener ‘Poison Eggs’ setting the stage with its fantastic build-up from its acoustic intro to the meat of the track, where the band cycle through the main riff and slower breakdown sections along with an ambient build-up to a heavy finish. ‘Life Under the Swatter’ and ‘Hive Destruction’ are shorter in both size and stature and while they are the lesser songs here, they do still keep the energy up and bring their own aforementioned ideas into the fold. ‘Poison Eggs’ and its more epic, atmospheric scope is in retrospect a hint towards their future direction but a much larger hint is the closer and my personal favourite track ‘Relocation Swarm’. It’s an experimental epic that dwarfs even the opener at nearly 12 minutes in length, one that in both structure and feel foreshadows their later post-metal material. The first 4 or so minutes consist of ominous, chugging doom metal verses laden with barely audible sampled narration and brief, sparse vocals from Aaron, before a drop-out section featuring more samples gives rise to another chugging doom riff and agonised shouts from Aaron as the band pile on more and more noise, continuing on for the remainder of the song until the band is consumed entirely by this noise. It’s a gargantuan finish to this amazing EP and this song is honestly one of Isis’ very finest; up there with the likes of ‘Altered Course’ in terms of scope and impact.

Mosquito Control is an excellent first volley from an amazing band. They’d make more innovative music down the road but the purity of vision and the near-perfect execution of it on display here is something to behold. Even the lyrics are a cut above most bands, with the band’s visions of mosquito swarms alluding to human societies and how they can be controlled and crushed. This EP is not something to be passed up on – it’s essential for any fan of Isis to see where they come from artistically and any fan of sludge metal or hardcore.

Rating: 95%

Ministry – Filth Pig

‘He sleeps with both eyes open…’

Filth Pig is an understandably maligned and divisive album as it is by no means an easy listen. It marked a considerable departure from the three albums that preceded it, which were fusions of industrial music with rock and metal that had earned them critical praise and commercial momentum. Filth Pig meanwhile was met with negative reviews, a disappointed fan base and poor commercial performance. It could be called a trend-hop given some of the influences present and the departure from their trademark industrial metal sound, though other influences present and the resulting complete package points more towards an experiment that many would argue did not pan out. On the contrary, I firmly believe this to be a very successful shift in the band’s sound and one of their very finest albums; even if it isn’t iconic or influential like what preceded it.

There are a few different influences that run throughout the music here, but the foundation is essentially a significantly slower take on the industrial metal of Psalm 69, though Al’s vocals remain a uniformly distorted, harsh shout and there is little sampling to be found here. The pounding of the drum machine here occurs at a significantly slower tempo and the thrash-inspired guitar riffs of old have morphed into droning, lumbering sludge riffs, replete with guitar feedback, tremolo and a sense of melody that ranges from traditional to off to non-existent. Comparisons to Streetcleaner-era Godflesh can be made in how uncompromisingly heavy, slow and brutal the music is, though it possesses a significantly more melodic and human touch and a sense of groove that wasn’t present on that starkly mechanical effort. Sludge and alternative metal are the influences responsible for this – on many tracks here there are significant nods to Alice in Chains and Crowbar. Most of the music operates with this blend; a sort of heavy/sludge/industrial metal hybrid that is uniformly slow, droning and crushing. Following on from these influences the atmosphere here is relentlessly negative and dark, being a combination of the bitter world-hating of Eyehategod and early Godflesh as well as the drug-addled and meaningless self-loathing of Alice in Chains (fitting, given that Al’s heroin addiction fuels the darkness on display here.) Ultimately this combination is so effective thanks to simple yet evocative instrumentation and similarly blunt and effective lyrics. The songs here are haunting and powerful; conveying perfectly what was going through Al’s head at the time from laser-focused hatred of those who wronged him to unhealthy obsession with a past lover to drug-fuelled nonsense.

The album is remarkably consistent in terms of quality, tone and style, and throughout the album the production is excellent with the music boasting a massive, sludgy guitar sound and heavy, pounding drums that give the music a lot of punch, along with a great mix that lets everything come through clearly while not making the sound too mechanical or clean. ‘Gameshow’ stands out as being the most atmospheric, melodic, depressing and drawn out song on the album, even featuring one of the few instances of Al’s forlorn clean singing. This is clearly by design – to overload the album with strung out sorrow would reduce the impact of it. Most of the remaining tracks here are less sorrowful, harsher, more direct and more atonal takes on the same sound, most notably ‘Crumbs’, ‘Lava’, the title track and ‘Useless’. The opener ‘Reload’ is an even more direct and blunt take on this sound; it’s a fairly brisk and noisy track with a particularly crackling beat and a ruthless, vengeful attitude espoused in the lyrics.

A few songs towards the end here do have some other influences worked into them, however – ‘Dead Guy’ has an almost-rapped cadence to the vocals and a very Helmet-esque groove, and while it has the potential to be a tacky and misguided trend-hop it goes over very well, sacrificing none of the feel or songwriting quality present here. ‘The Fall’ is in some respects more in line with their older material, with its booming drum machine and less sludge-influenced riffing, though the gigantic guitar tone and the blunt, defeatist lyrics still makes it fit snugly into the album. Bob Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’ is transformed from a quaint country rock song into a coke-fuelled obsessive plea for a woman to stay the night – it stands out for its remarkably joyful riff during the chorus and the prominent acoustic guitar line during the verses, and is about as good a cover as can be as the band really make it their own, fitting in well here both thematically and musically. ‘Brick Windows’ is an uptempo psychedelic industrial/alternative metal track that juxtaposes its negative lyrics with its bizarrely upbeat, melodic main riff, giving a bittersweet and hypnotic note to end the album on.

It’s a shame Filth Pig is such a criticised album; it is understandable that many would be turned off by music that is so bitter, hopeless, self-loathing and otherwise negative but the sheer strength of the material here clearly never shone through for most. This is easily one of Ministry’s best albums: it’s an atmospheric masterpiece and a landmark album for the band and metal in the ’90s. This is not an album that grows on a listener quickly (it certainly didn’t for me), but give it time and plenty of listens and the music might just win you over.

Rating: 100%

Isis – The Red Sea

‘Fire as far as the eyes can see’

(Note: Whilst most versions of this EP feature their 1998 demo as tracks 4-7, these will be considered separately in a review of said release as I feel the two sets of tracks are different enough to warrant their own reviews. Hence this review will only cover the first 3 songs of the 7 track release, or the only 3 songs on the 1999 vinyl release.)

Isis were always a band in transition – if one wasn’t aware of the artists at work at all they could be forgiven for thinking Celestial was written by a completely different band to In the Absence of Truth, even though they were written by the same 5 people. In general, their adjacent releases sound noticeably different to one another too, as they would evolve substantially with each release. It’s for these reasons that earlier Isis releases would be surprising to many: for one, their earliest work (their demo, EPs and Celestial) sound nothing like what most associate with the band. In addition, the evolution of their sound across this stage of their career was much smaller than say, the leap between Celestial and Oceanic. This brings us to The Red Sea, which exemplifies these traits.

In general, these are among the heaviest and most extreme songs the band would ever produce. It can be easy to forget that before the post-rock and progressive metal/rock influence crept into their music Isis were making searingly heavy sludge metal. Across this release there are many examples of excellent sludge metal riffing whether they’re going for a brutal and chaotic feel that leans towards hardcore, or a tense and droning style that leans towards doom metal. The drums are a similar story – complementing the riffs perfectly no matter what tempo and no matter what atmosphere the band are trying to achieve. The sound of the music is a bottom-heavy and thick one and the instruments sound crisp and loud – the guitar tone is a vast and sludgy mass and the drums crash into the front of the mix, giving the music the sonic clarity and weight it needs. The vocals take something of a back seat in the mix but that doesn’t rob them of their presence in the music. Aaron’s vocal performance here is a distorted, raspy shriek – none of the shouts, growls or cleans heard on later albums are anywhere to be found. He sounds even more intense than what he was doing on Mosquito Control, and matches the sheer power of the instruments.

Even though this is their shortest ever release – a mere 15 minutes comprised of 3 tracks – there is a surprising level of variety across them. ‘Charmicarmicarmicat Shines to Earth’ is a noisy intro piece that is reminiscent of ‘Emission of the Signal’ from Sawblade: it’s less than 2 and a half minutes of a very slow and ringing sludge metal riff while Aaron shouts over it in a distorted, booming voice. It’s a powerful way to set the stage for what’s to come and a very intense track in its own right. ‘The Minus Times’ begins with a rather fast and frenetic passage before settling into a crushing mid-tempo groove that still brings frequent change-ups in the riffs. It listens like a much better produced and more refined version of a track from their demo, and is the single most brutal thing the band has ever written. By contrast, the title track is an epic that is akin to the more elaborate and atmospheric style witnessed on Celestial. Starting with a slow, droning riff it progresses to more mid-tempo territory over the course of 3 and a half minutes before suddenly giving way to a lone acoustic melody. Samples are slowly faded into the music before the band comes crashing in again, with the guitars playing an electric rendition of the acoustic melody. This continues to the end of the track and makes for an impactful ending to both the track and the EP. This song also marks one of the earliest examples of their music focusing more on atmosphere than outright heaviness, making it a very important track for their musical development.

The Red Sea is probably the most transitional Isis release despite its brief duration, bringing together a more refined form of the style used on their demo and the style that would set the stage for their later, better known albums. This gives the release a pleasing circularity to it – being a final send-off to that older style while initiating the transition to something new. It may not have the same level of sonic and conceptual unity of other Isis albums but it does contain two of their finest songs and it’s a watershed moment in their discography. If these aren’t good enough reasons to get this I don’t know what is.

Rating: 93%

Isis – Sawblade

An interesting artefact

Sawblade was always something of an oddity in Isis’ discography, which pertains to its nature and purpose. Unlike anything else they’ve done this was never intended to be a main part of their discography, having been thrown together to be sold during a 1999 tour with Neurosis and Candiria. And when I say ‘thrown together’, it really has been: there’s no cover art at all and it’s more a compilation of unreleased tracks they had at the time – two covers from The Red Sea sessions and two demos that were recorded at home. Hence it’s a collection of unrelated songs as opposed to a unified piece of work, something else which sets it apart from the rest of their discography.

The two demos bookend this release, and due to their experimental nature they may put some people off. The opener ‘Emission of the Signal’ is 5 or so minutes of a singular chugging sludge riff, with higher-end guitar noise coming in later, timed to the riff and contrasting with it, as well as sampled thudding in the background of the track. It’s quite good in its own way, being a sort of build up to the meat of the EP, but the problem is it’s too long – it could easily have been cut down to 3 and a half minutes and the effect would have been the same. The closing track is ‘House of Low Culture’, an 11 minute ambient/drone piece. Its first 4 minutes consist solely of rumbling sound effects which then give way to a guitar melody. The guitar work becomes less melodic with time as it shifts to heavier, more droning territory before fading out somewhat and allowing a sparse keyboard line to take over. It’s a very good song, remaining interesting throughout and creating a tranquil, reflective atmosphere, however its sparse construction and sluggish progression may make it less immediately accessible to some.

The other two tracks are covers of absolute classics – Black Sabbath’s ‘Hand of Doom’ and Godflesh’s ‘Streetcleaner’. Both of these tracks were recorded during The Red Sea sessions and as such they have a polished, crisp and loud sound to them with a very pronounced low end. The drums in particular are quite loud and the guitar tone is immensely distorted, sludgy and massive even by Isis standards. This goes some way to making both of these tracks improvements on the originals, but it complements ‘Streetcleaner’ much better as the power of this rather claustrophobic, intense production style can be felt more on a pummelling track like that than the comparatively laid back ‘Hand of Doom’. This is partially why ‘Hand of Doom’ is the lesser of the two covers, with the other reason being that they don’t do a whole lot with it. Aaron sings in a similar style to Ozzy (and does a better job of it) and the song is a little slower than before, but besides this it’s very similar to the original. It’s good and all but it’s sort of unremarkable, and it can easily be argued that the track loses some of its character by replacing Ozzy’s distinctive voice with a technically better performance that’s merely an imitation.

On ‘Streetcleaner’ however, they very much don’t go through the motions: the drums are live as opposed to a drum machine, the guitars don’t drone as much, and the production as stated is fuller and louder than before. The 40 second spoken word intro from the original has been cut completely, as has some of the outro. As a result the track, while perhaps less mechanical-sounding than before, is made even heavier and more direct, with the band upping the intensity to levels that even this song’s namesake album could never match while still managing to create a hellish atmosphere like the original. The riffing is more brutal and tense than ever and Aaron shouts in a manner similar to Justin but with more power, and his voice has more distortion and reverb to match the newfound intensity of the music. It’s not often that a song becomes a classic for the band covering it, but Isis succeeded in doing so; it’s an amazing rendition of an excellent song. While it can be argued that the loss of the drum machine and overall machine-like qualities to the sound makes the song less distinctive, this is undeniably a more remarkable and interesting cover than ‘Hand of Doom’ as they do something a little different with it. I’d even go as far to say I prefer it to the original, but this is a matter of personal taste.

This is a good release as you’d expect (though also uneven, as you wouldn’t expect), however I would highly recommend you don’t buy it, as its limited number of copies makes it a collector’s piece with elevated prices. The CD releases start at around $38 and can fetch as much as $320, while the vinyl releases start at about $70 and go up to over $325. To my mind no singular album, no matter how good it may be, is ever worth this much and that’s especially true for a half hour, 4 track EP comprised of two covers and two demos. It can’t be stressed enough: either buy these tracks on Bandcamp, or if you wish to own them in physical form, the two covers (but not the demos) can be found on Temporal, along with many other rare tracks. These are much more cost-effective ways of obtaining this material, and are very much preferable options to buying the EP on its own.

Rating: 80%

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