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The Major Lift

by David King on April 13, 2011

I’m sorry folks, but I can’t do it this month. Mundane alterna-gutter-scraping releases by the Foo Fighters and the Strokes have left me a bit despondent.Why do they bother? If you’ve read my previous reviews you know that I am found of indie bands and even ’90s nostalgia acts but not acts that just phone it in release after release.

Moderate rock . . . ugh.

The only solution? Metal! That’s right, this week it’s the Heavy Lift! (Cue cheese-ball metal riff, the sound of thunder and the savage scream of an eagle covered in fiercely spiked armor.) But seriously, these days metal albums released on small labels score just as well on the Billboard charts as other releases (well, except for Eminem and Kanye), and this month there are plenty of thrashing releases worthy of your attention.

Amon Amarth are the prototypical Viking metal band. I write that with no sense of irony (Grrrr, THOR!). The band actually take exception to that label. “We play death metal. We write about Vikings, so, therefore, some refer to us as Viking metal, but I have no idea what that is,” lead singer Johan Hegg told some metal mag. “I can’t imagine the Vikings were into metal at all except on the swords and stuff. And musically, I guess they only played these strange lip instruments and some bongos or whatever.” So, OK, maybe they aren’t technically Viking metal, but these dudes are fairly savage despite their sense of humor. These Swedes are basically the Metallica of melodic death metal. No-nonsense, stirring and fast. Their latest release, Surtur Rising, delves into more mythology, with Hegg using a deep guttural growl to describe clashing gods. Sure, your mom probably is not going to dig this, but the album puts most American metal bands to shame. The production is crisp, guitar work brilliant and the percussion arranged precisely. Obviously this is not the deepest work of art around. In fact, like Marc Bolan, I would liken it more to a car—a Ferrari in fact—fun, mechanically perfect, a little bit intimidating but not exactly practical for everyday use.

Between the Buried and Me, perhaps the most creative band in metal today, may look like the college kids down the street, but their music is some of the most challenging and absurd stuff being put to record. Imagine your favorite granola jam turned the amps to 11. While not sporting the beards and black shirts of bands like Amon Amarth, Between the Buried do borrow quite a bit of inspiration from the Swedes. They occasionally display some melodic death metal; sometimes they borrow heavily from the slick, pulsating work of Opeth; and other times they employ the thrashing polyrhythmic riffage of Meshuggah. But all of it is delivered at blistering speeds and with heaps of classic rock influence thrown in. Queen, Pink Floyd and Faith No More all pop up, thanks to the vocals and keyboard work of front man Tommy Rogers. The band, at worst, can seem detached, schizophrenic and desperate to reference all their influences at once. At best, their work can seem schizophrenic yet well-composed, moving, spastic and challenging.

The band’s last album, The Great Misdirect, felt like the band were screwing around, and that may have been the case, they were about to leave Victory Records. Their debut for Metal Blade, The Parallax: The Hypersleep Dyalogues (cue the theremin), is a 30-something-minute-long EP featuring three songs; they plan a follow-up to continue the wacky, space/time-shifting story unveiled in this first EP. They left their longtime producer Jamie King to record the EP with David Bottrill, who has produced Tool and King Crimson, but that doesn’t mean this recording sounds any better than their last. It sounds worse. The band reportedly had a week to record the absurdly complex album, and it sounds at times as if corners were cut, bridges slapped on, fills improvised. The drums sound a bit muddled, the guitars run into each other and Rogers’ vocals sound like they were processed through a tin can—even the clean vocals where Rogers doesn’t sound like a cookie monster. In fact, some of Rogers’ screaming has been produced to a point that it sounds like Jonathan Davis of Korn. And yet these gripes are minuscule, because there is so much music packed into this half-hour disc.

“Specular Reflection” opens with an ominous keyboard run that sounds like the work of Danny Elfman—it could be something out of black metal’s playbook—but quickly the jazz-inspired riffs shred until they explode into an Opeth/Tool-like progressive dirge and Rogers goes from cookie monster to cooing lover: “The touch of morning skin,” he sings. Then the band are suddenly a thrash outfit. There is cowbell and Southern riffage aplenty until the chorus kicks in all high-pitched and Thom Yorke-like. “Augment of Rebirth” is more of a return to the band’s Silent Circus days, grinding and storming, until suddenly humanity peeks out and, like some sort of death-metal Freddie Mercury, Rogers peers out of the tantrum and theatrically pleads with a chorus behind him, “Please help me! Please help me!” Give this band more than a week in the studio and they might invent a time machine.

Finnish thrash outfit Children of Bodom are another band who deliver technical riffery at high speeds. Their new release, Reckless, Relentless, Forever, is a sampler of modern death-metal styles: death, blackness, trash. They have a grizzly, unsolved-murder air about them, but their spirit lies somewhere between Mötley Crüe and Ratt (no, their hair isn’t as good—er, bad) in the sense that their music is infused with a party-your-ass-off, devil-may-care vibe. No (again), they aren’t singing about banging babes and cruising the L.A. strip. Most of their vocals are about, you know, death and kicking ass. Take for example “Shovel Knock Out,” where lead singer Alexi Kaiho asks the very pertinent question: “Hundred killers after you/What the hell you gonna do?” Soul-searching vocals? Nil. But what a party.

Finally, what better way to end a column on metal than with a review of Ke$ha’s latest release, I am The Dance Commander+I Command You to Dance:The Remix Album? Sure this is the second album the “singer” has released that rehashes the material on her first album. You get nine booty-grinding remixes including the ultra catchy “Blow” remix and one new track—“(Fuck Him) He’s a DJ.” Sure it sounds vapid . . . and it is . . . but it’s got a great beat, and honestly I would take a Ke$ha remix over the soulless moan of a Kings of Leon track any day. Ke$ha may be mindless—but at least you can dance to her.